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Tens Of Thousands Of Missourians Lose Health Insurance After Coronavirus Job Losses

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Close to 100,000 more people may be newly uninsured after they've lost employer-sponsored health insurance.

The number of people without health insurance has grown by an estimated 100,000 in Missouri and 186,000 in Illinois since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the nonprofit Families USA.

Coronavirus-related job losses have meant families are living without health care during a time they need it most, the researchers said. Many fearing high hospital bills are forgoing medical care and putting their lives at risk, doctors said.

“Many, many people, millions of people, have lost their job, said Rachel Garfield, co-director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “And for many Americans, health insurance is tied to their employment.”

An estimated 613,000 adults are now without health insurance in Missouri, according to Families USA.

The total number of newly uninsured is likely much higher than the nonprofit estimates, since the data didn’t count children and spouses who shared health insurance plans with a newly unemployed worker, said the study’s authors.

Aseparate estimatefrom the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 480 people in Missouri could have lost insurance because of job loss, Garfield said. However, some of those people could have later enrolled in private coverage or switched to a family member’s plan.

People with lower-paying jobs in fields such as the hospitality or restaurant industries are more likely to have become unemployed due to the coronavirus, Garfield added. That means they may not have had insurance coverage in the first place.

Doctors have said they’ve seen more uninsured people in emergency rooms who have put off care because they’re worried about medical bills.

“Folks are staying away for a long period of time because they’ve lost their insurance and they’re afraid of the large bill they might get,” said Dr. Howie Mell, an emergency physician at HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon, Illinois.

People are losing access to primary care providers when they lose their insurance, Mell said. That means many come in with severe health issues that might have been avoided.

“Folks who have chronic diseases or lymphedema or congestive heart failure or diabetes or asthma who have lost their insurance … and then haven’t been able to keep their chronic medical problems under control, and they come into the emergency department in a flat-out crisis,” he said. “When somebody comes in and they’ve been obviously ill for quite a while … you find out, tragically, it’s fear of the bills.”

People who have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance coverage have two months to apply for a plan on the healthcare.gov marketplace, Mell said.

Even if people don’t have coverage, they should never be afraid to go to the emergency room, he said. Doctors will never turn patients away.

The unemployment and coronavirus crises could work in favor of a Medicaid expansion, said Garfield, of the Kaiser Family Foundation. The issue is being put to Missouri votersduring the Aug. 4 primary election.

“Many people are facing a personal economic crisis and potentially a personal health crisis and thinking, ‘What if I come down with coronavirus, will I be able to afford the care I need?’” she said. “I think it’s certainly elevating the importance of health issues in elections this year.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.