Coronavirus-Triggered Unemployment Leads to Massive Loss of Health Insurance Coverage

Interview with Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, distinguished professor of public health and health policy, CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, conducted by Scott Harris

[Producers’ Update: The Labor Department’s unemployment claims update on April 16, a few days after this interview was recorded, is now at 22 million since President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic four weeks ago.]

A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, titled, “Intersecting U.S. Epidemics: COVID-19 and Lack of Health Insurance,” found that with millions of Americans losing their jobs during the coronavirus lockdown, an estimated 13.5 million people will also lose their employer-based health insurance coverage by the end of June. These figures do not include coverage losses among self-employed persons or others who lost jobs but did not file unemployment claims, or their dependents.

The research was conducted by Drs. Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein, both internal medicine specialists who serve as distinguished professors at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and are lecturers at Harvard Medical School.  An earlier study conducted by Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein in 2017 concluded that 18,000 persons die each year in the U.S. due to lack of health insurance.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Woolhandler, a co-founder and board member of the group Physicians for a National Health Program, who discusses the inherent problem of linking health insurance coverage with employment exposed by the pandemic, and how the current health crisis has created momentum to move the U.S. to a universal, single payer health system.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: We were able to estimate that about 5 million people have lost insurance due to the 16.6 million people who’ve lost their jobs. And if the Federal Reserve Bank’s estimate that more than 40 million Americans will lose their job by the end of this fiscal quarter — that is, by June 30th of this year, if that estimate is correct — 13.5 million Americans will lose their health insurance. That on top of the 30 million Americans who had no health insurance prior to the COVID crisis. That brings us to 43 million Americans with no health insurance – who many of them are unemployed, but not all of them – 43 million uninsured who will be facing a potentially life-threatening illness with no health coverage to help them pay for the cost.

So this is a double disaster if you will. People are at risk of a life-threatening illness and yet they’ve lost their health insurance and have no way to pay for this care. So, and this of course is something that we can lay squarely at the feet of politicians, including Donald Trump. We really need to get 100 percent coverage of the population through a Medicare For All plan. Medicare for All won’t prevent COVID any more than (any insurance) can prevent an earthquake or a zombie apocalypse or whatever. But it would make us have more of the tools we need to get everybody treated and identify cases early and control this epidemic.

SCOTT HARRIS: Dr. Woolhandler, what could be done now in terms of a federal response to this huge number of people that have lost their jobs, and hence, have lost their private health insurance. What can be done to fill the gap, especially during this urgent crisis where so many people will be faced with their own personal crisis of having to be forced to seek medical care. Maybe in some cases to save their lives.

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Right, to save their lives. The federal government tomorrow could do a lot. The states and local governments are in fact quite limited because with the exception of Vermont, the other 49 states by law have to balance their budget. They cannot run a deficit. So when their tax revenues start to fall, as they do in a recession like this, they don’t have the tax money to go and do spending. Federal government does not have that restriction. The federal government can do deficit spending. It can borrow money, frankly, it can print money if it wants to. So there’s no restriction on federal spending in a crisis.

SCOTT HARRIS: Are there any signs that Congress and this president, Donald Trump, would be willing to fill the gap here in this moment of crisis to pay for people’s health insurance during this pandemic?

DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Sen. Sanders in the Senate and Congressman (Pramila) Jayapal in the House have introduced a bill saying that everybody’s uninsured and/or unemployed, but anyone who’s uninsured for any reason needs to be placed on a Medicare For All program between now and the end of the epidemic. That has been introduced in the House and Senate. You might’ve said three weeks ago that was pie in the sky, but a lot of things are possible in a crisis like this, that might not have been possible earlier. Certainly, Congress has already declared that testing is free and that’s a good thing. That testing is free. But of course, if you’re sick, you don’t just need testing. You need testing and treatment. That all needs to be free for people. Congress has already increased sick pay for many people. Unfortunately, employers with 500 or more employees are completely exempted from those rules. So, for instance, most hospitals, most large retail outlets are going to be exempted from the rules.

But even so, we’re seeing a lot of things happen that didn’t seem possible before COVID. So this is a very critical time for people who support social justice, people who care about these issues. To be out there working and speaking and advocating, even if you’re doing it over the telephone or over Zoom, you need to be advocating and speaking out about the needs of the American people.

For more information on Physicians for a National Health Program, visit

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