What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

For many Americans, health coverage is tied to a job — and now they have neither

Editor's Note: In this report, Emma Rittner stated that an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits "puts everyone on unemployment over the cap for Medicaid.” That is not correct. The CARES Act explicitly excludes the temporary $600 federal pandemic unemployment benefit from counting toward income in determining Medicaid eligibility.

Consequences of the unemployment driven by the novel coronavirus pandemic will reverberate through the U.S. economy for months, if not years. One result: as millions of Americans lose their jobs, they are also losing their health care coverage -- and for many, there aren't affordable insurance alternatives available. Paul Solman reports on the connection between employment and health insurance.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The tidal wave of pandemic-related unemployment will reverberate in many different ways throughout the country for months, quite possibly years, to come. One way: As millions lose their jobs, they also lose their health care coverage. And for so many, there are no easy prospects of getting affordable insurance.

    The connection between employment and health insurance is the focus of Paul Solman's report tonight. It's part of our regular series, Making Sense.

  • Connie Boyd:

    Trust in Jehovah and do what is good.

  • Paul Solman:

    Connie Boyd is trying hard to keep the faith since losing her job at an airport kiosk.

  • Connie Boyd:

    If I no longer have a job, then that means no longer health insurance for me. And with my illness, I have to have — it's very important that I have health insurance, because I have Crohn's disease.

  • Paul Solman:

    Millions of Americans no longer have a job or health insurance.

    Waitress Amanda Dawson lost both.

  • Amanda Dawson:

    When I contacted my health insurance provider to see if they could work something out on my premium, they said no.

  • Narrator:

    With health insurance from Oscar, you can talk to a doctor anywhere, any time for free.

  • Paul Solman:

    Dawson had her own policy through the insurer Oscar. She had to let it lapse. But half of us have employer-provided coverage, like cook Emma Rittner, who lost her job in March.

  • Emma Rittner:

    As of today, I don't have any insurance. And even though I'm on unemployment, the additional $600 a week puts everyone on unemployment over the cap for Medicaid.

  • Paul Solman:

    Uninsured, unable to afford treatment for a tooth infection that keeps flaring up.

  • Emma Rittner:

    I did manage to get antibiotics from a friend whose mom regularly goes down to Mexico to get medication for their parents. And I have been taking that, self-medicating , based off of Dr. Google's advice of every eight hours. And I will be continuing that for 10 to 14 days.

  • Paul Solman:

    But when you get laid off, don't you get COBRA, that is, bridging insurance for some period of time?

  • Emma Rittner:

    For me, I can't afford $560 a month for coverage continuing through COBRA.

  • Tim Maddox:

    My biggest concern is my wife and my newborn baby.

  • Paul Solman:

    Tim Maddox lost his job as a United Airlines subcontractor last Thursday. The next day, his son was born via emergency C-section. He's fighting to keep insurance through the end of May.

  • Tim Maddox:

    So, this has caused a lot of stress and anxiety, when you think about you have a newborn. And now it's going to throw me into turmoil as to how we're going to provide medical services going forward.

  • Paul Solman:

    Then there's the Pletch family. Mom Sheri was abruptly laid off from her auto sales job in April. Her insurance?

  • Sheri Pletch:

    It was terminated the day I was terminated. And I was told I had until midnight that night to use any benefits.

  • Paul Solman:

    Not enough time to stock up on the family's meds, which cost $700 a month. Dad Keith gets no benefits, but he still works, meaning the family makes too much for Medicaid and can't afford COBRA.

  • Sheri Pletch:

    So, he works for a local company that distributes janitorial products to local businesses. So, they're selling hand sanitizer and toilet paper and disinfectant to the prisons and to nursing homes and retirement communities.

    He is out among people where there are known COVID cases. And so that concern for me is, if he were to contract it or to bring it home to us, what we would do without health insurance.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, the uninsured can get a free COVID test and their providers can be reimbursed for COVID care. But that still leaves plenty of worries for substitute teacher Frank Johnson.

    He tried to buy a plan on the Affordable Care Act marketplace. It was unaffordable.

  • Frank Johnson:

    I think it was about 4500 a month. And this was the lowest rate that they had to offer. And so here I am basically without insurance during pretty much a pandemic, because, of course, our health care is still in many ways tied to our jobs or it's tied to a marketplace.

  • Anne Case:

    The pandemic is laying bare a lot of problems with this system.

  • Paul Solman:

    Princeton economist Anne Case. Her Nobel Prize-winning husband, Angus Deaton:

  • Angus Deaton:

    We're really hurting ourselves by having a health care system that sucks up so much money and destroys people's lives.

  • Paul Solman:

    A few years ago, the couple coined the phrase deaths of despair. It's now the title of a book that blames much of the economic anguish and declining longevity of America's working class on the health care system.

  • Anne Case:

    Eighteen percent of GDP is spent now on health care. It's taking money from regular people, and it's sending it up the income distribution to hospitals, to big pharma, to device manufacturers, and to some subset of doctors.

  • Angus Deaton:

    Some of the big hospitals in New York or Philadelphia with chief executives who are doctors, but are now paid $5 million or $10 million a year. Pharma executives get paid huge sums of money.

  • Paul Solman:

    Pharma floods TV with ads. Lots of insurers means armies of billers and payment deniers. And since health costs are so pricey, employers have a disincentive to provide it, especially to low-wage workers.

  • Angus Deaton:

    So, if that worker is worth $30,000 to the firm, and the firm has to pay $10,000 or $20,000 for a single or a family policy, that becomes sort of unsustainable.

    And so either wages have to go down, which happens, or they shut the job altogether and decide they can do without, and maybe they can hire in workers from the (INAUDIBLE) cleaning company or something, so that they don't have to hire their own janitors.

    All of those are outsourced. And the people are left working for firms where there are no benefits, where there are dead-end jobs, simply because of this enormous cost of health care.

  • Paul Solman:

    Case in point, asthmatic Robert Laurence, whose low-paying gigs have never come with benefits.

  • Robert Laurence:

    I was a trash collector. I was — they call them brand ambassadors. I worked at a call center.

  • Paul Solman:

    Health insurance is a luxury simply he can't afford.

  • Robert Laurence:

    You kind of have a choice. You know, do I pay my car payment or do I get my inhaler?

  • Paul Solman:

    But aren't you worried, even though you're obviously quite young, there's a pandemic out there, something really bad could happen to you, and you have no coverage?

  • Robert Laurence:

    I'm very worried about it. It's just that I don't have the money to really buy into that system. And, hopefully, I can get a better position. But, you know, the future is kind of looking bleak.

  • Paul Solman:

    And the economics of COVID-19 could make things bleak for years to come.

  • Anne Case:

    It's possible that many, many, many people will get tens of thousands of dollars' worth of medical bills that they cannot pay.

  • Paul Solman:

    Frank Johnson hopes he isn't one of them.

    So what happens if you get sick?

  • Frank Johnson:

    I'm just praying that I don't get sick. And just hopefully, you know, not, nothing happens and nobody around me gets infected.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest