Much of the conversation on record job losses in West Virginia over the past five weeks has centered on our state’s unemployment insurance system, and with good reason. According to Governor Justice and WorkForce WV, at least 130,000 residents have filed initial unemployment claims since school closures and stay-at-home orders began, and that figure does not include the self-employed, gig workers, or independent contractors who’ve seen their incomes plummet. Another serious implication of job loss that has seen less focus is loss of health coverage. Since most workers in the United States get their health insurance through their employers, losing one’s job also means losing health benefits- often for the whole family.
An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 45.8 percent of West Virginians who’ve lost their jobs due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 have also lost health coverage over the past several weeks. Looking at the total number of initial claims in the state, that means that an estimated 60,000 residents are newly uninsured, with that number likely to climb as additional job losses mount.
Despite the drastic estimated increase of uninsured residents, we have not seen the number of West Virginians enrolled in the Medicaid expansion population grow. This does not mean the WV Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) isn’t seeing an increase in applications though. It can take up to 30 days for applicants to be approved for Medicaid coverage, so it could still be a couple of weeks before we see a surge in Medicaid enrollment numbers.
There are steps that the WV DHHR can take to streamline enrollment for newly eligible West Virginians, including utilizing federal electronic income data sources when possible, expanding the use of presumptive Medicaid eligibility, and approving/enrolling applicants right away with verbal attestations of income.
At the same time, we can’t be complacent in assuming that displaced workers will know what their health coverage options are and get connected with them. Quick action is needed by advocates to ensure that West Virginians are connected with the resources that allow them to maintain health coverage.
Those who have lost health coverage can get free, local help from WV Navigator, a group in that helps people sign up for health insurance through Medicaid and the healthcare.gov marketplace. WV Navigator can be reached by calling 1-844-WV-CARES.
For those who wish to look at their health coverage options on their own, there are four main options to consider.
Note: You can also apply for additional programs at wvpath.org, including SNAP (food stamps), child care assistance, LIHEAP (energy assistance), and TANF.
Get this information in a fact sheet.
At the federal level, steps can also be taken to ensure health coverage for those who have been displaced from their jobs due to COVID-19. Lawmakers and advocates have called on federal policymakers to expand Medicare and Medicaid to cover those who’ve lost their health insurance for the duration of the public health crisis and until our labor market recovers.
West Virginia has made significant strides in reducing our uninsured population, primarily via the Medicaid expansion. During this crisis, state and federal officials should leverage the flexibility within Medicaid to ensure that those who’ve lost employer-based health coverage do not fall through the cracks.
In the longer-term, this pandemic highlights the urgency of achieving universal coverage not tied to one’s employment. It will likely only increase the popularity of public insurance programs like Medicaid as we see its flexibility and positive impact on our health care system. While true universal coverage could likely only be achieved at the federal level, West Virginia could significantly expand coverage to residents by enacting a Medicaid buy-in option.