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Quiet the storm brewing in health care

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Even before the coronavirus outbreak began, a storm was brewing in our health care system. Under the Trump administration, the number of uninsured Americans has steadily increased from the record lows seen following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to the administration’s efforts to undermine the health care law, combined with political resistance to Medicaid expansion in many states, the uninsured rate climbed up and up. According to new data from the CDC, nearly 31 million Americans lacked health insurance on the eve of the pandemic.

Then the coronavirus hit. Of the more than 40 million Americans out of work due to the pandemic, an estimated 27 million have also lost their health insurance. Today we face record rates of Americans lacking health insurance precisely when demands on our health care system are greatest. 

The consequences of this policy failure will be severe, and the damage will not just be felt by those uninsured Americans who contract coronavirus. This will hit state budgets, cash-strapped hospitals and American families — who will likely see the financial strain on our system reflected in higher insurance premiums.

Unfortunately, this is not even the worst-case scenario. Having failed twice to overturn the Affordable Care Act in Congress, the Trump administration is currently leading a lawsuit that would overturn the health care law in its entirety with no plan for replacement. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case this fall, precisely when public health experts warn we could face a second wave of COVID cases. If successful, the Trump administration lawsuit would dismantle health coverage for millions of Americans and protections for the millions more who have a pre-existing condition.

To be clear, this legal challenge to the health coverage and protections that millions of Americans rely on represents the entirety of the Trump administration’s plan to address the health coverage crisis we now face.

The administration should immediately withdraw this lawsuit that threatens to disrupt our entire health care system in the middle of a pandemic. But merely avoiding this impending disaster is not nearly enough. We need to dramatically and quickly expand coverage for those Americans out of work due to the coronavirus, as well as for those Americans who lacked insurance before the crisis began.

First, we must expand and strengthen Medicaid. More than 380,000 Virginians have already gained affordable coverage through our expansion of Medicaid. As unemployment increases, states will see a further influx of individuals eligible for Medicaid coverage. Congress should provide states with additional funding, tied to unemployment rates, to help address this influx. In addition, we should pass legislation I’ve introduced called the SAME Act, which would make sure states such as Virginia that were late to expand Medicaid get their fair share of federal funding. 

Second, Congress should help workers who have lost their employer-provided insurance regain that coverage through the COBRA program. To offset the high cost of paying for an employer-sponsored plan without employer support, the federal government should temporarily help cover the costs until it is safe for workers to return to work.

Third, the Trump administration must re-open the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges so uninsured individuals can immediately enroll in health care coverage. Congress should also enhance tax credits to help more Americans afford this marketplace coverage.

These are three ideas that can and should be enacted in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. While the legislative solutions I’ve described are not a cure-all to structural problems in our health care system, they would quickly help millions of Americans regain coverage during this critical moment.

With unemployment and uninsured rates at record highs, the combined economic and health care crisis we face cannot be ignored. The solutions I’ve described would allow us to get millions of Americans covered as quickly as possible, using the tools that are already available. We should implement them before it is too late.

Mark Warner represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.