A new report estimates 160K Utahns could lose health insurance after coronavirus layoffs

A new analysis by QuoteWizard suggests 160,000 Utahns could lose employer-provided health insurance because of coronavirus-induced layoffs, and that’s in the state’s lowest unemployment scenario of 10%.

The study says Utah has the 12th highest number of uninsured residents in the country based on the low unemployment scenario. In 2018, 9% of the state’s population didn’t have health insurance, although that was before the Legislature expanded Medicaid in response to a voter-approved initiative.

“There’s a lot of economic reasons as well as personal reasons why a high number of uninsured people in the state can be costly in health care," QuoteWizard research analyst Adam Johnson said, “as well as leaving folks ... with personal debt.”

Nationally, 14.7% of Americans were unemployed in April, up 10% from March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current unemployment rate in the country is close to QuoteWizard’s medium to high scenario of 17.5% to 25% and in this range, 5.1 million to 9.8 million Americans could be left uninsured after losing jobs.

Many people filing for unemployment benefits will look for health insurance options through Medicaid as an alternative to expensive health care marketplace plans. However Medicaid is an income-based benefit, and in Utah the program is available only to residents earning up to 138% of the poverty level — roughly $35,000 for a family of four or $17,000 for an individual.

“The unfortunate reality of these unemployment scenarios is that those who are left uninsured are those who are not able to qualify for Medicaid,” Johnson wrote in the study. “What’s more is Medicaid eligibility in certain states will mean a higher number of uninsured people in different parts of the country.”

When Utahns lose employer-sponsored health insurance in the low unemployment scenario, about 121,000 people will be eligible for Medicaid, but that still leaves about 33,000 people uninsured. In the medium unemployment scenario, the number of uninsured Utahns jumps to 86,000.

“When people are left without health insurance, they still need health care, and when you don’t have health insurance, it [becomes] out of pocket expenses, and those debts ... end up piling up on hospitals, which is why health care costs increase over time,” Johnson said. This is because patients are liable for hospital debts but many debts go unpaid, meaning hospitals will have to raise their costs to compensate for the losses.

Having a high number of uninsured people also uses up resources from the federal government to help with the coronavirus pandemic. In March, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that designated $100 billion in funding for hospitals and other health care services.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that health care costs for treating uninsured people could add up to $40 billion, taking a big chunk of the relief funds and leaving other parts of the bill underfunded.