Amid historic job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s estimated that many thousands of Alaskans may have lost their job-sponsored health insurance during a time when that coverage may be particularly important.
Lori Wing-Heier, director of the Alaska Division of Insurance, said that while her division does track total enrollment, they do not currently have a good indication of how many Alaskans have lost their employer-sponsored health care since March.
But Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said it’s possible to do “a bit of triangulating" to estimate how many Alaskans have lost their health insurance.
Prior to the pandemic, about half of Alaskans were offered insurance via their employer, he said, adding that that percentage varies by industry. And it’s estimated that close to 40,000 jobs were lost between April and September 2020.
The industry that is least likely to offer insurance is leisure and hospitality, which is also the industry hardest hit by the pandemic-driven recession, Guettabi said. So the number of Alaskans who may have lost their employer-sponsored insurance is likely a bit less than half of those who lost their jobs: somewhere in the ballpark of 20,000 people.
However, early on in the pandemic, the state insurance division issued a special regulatory order which permitted people who lost jobs to stay on their employer-sponsored health care plan if their employer allowed for that.
The order is set to expire simultaneously with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency declaration on Nov. 15.
Wing-Heier said in an email that if the emergency declaration is extended, her division would “review the current orders for their effectiveness and work with our legal team to determine what options we have to best protect Alaskan consumers.”
They do not have data on how many employers have opted to allow their former employees to keep their health care insurance.
“Because of the order, we don’t yet know how many are or are not still insured on their employer plan,” Wing-Heier said.
Another factor is that employees who cannot stay on their employer’s plan are eligible for COBRA, she said, a supplemental insurance that can last up to 18 months.
But high rates of enrollment in Alaska Medicaid in recent months provide another clue on the scope of the loss, Guettabi said, since newly unemployed people may qualify for Medicaid coverage if their income drops low enough.
In May 2020, about 10,000 more Alaskans signed up for Medicaid than they did in May 2019, according to data reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“I would say the pandemic surely has affected coverage for Alaskans and that will show up in higher Medicaid enrollment, higher uninsurance and potentially higher emergency room usage," Guettabi said.
Wing-Heier said she could not comment on how accurate Guettabi’s estimate is.
“The data may be lagging but it will give us a more exact indication when it is available,” she said.
Groups are seeing an increase in the number of uninsured people across the U.S. during the pandemic. The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington D.C., released a study in August that found that nationwide, as many as 12 million Americans may have lost their health insurance since February.
Another study by advocacy group Families USA estimated that the recent increases in the number of uninsured adults are 39% higher than any annual increase ever recorded.
Mikal Canfield, a spokesman with Providence Health & Social Services, said that so far, Providence Medical Center in Anchorage has not seen a marked increase in people who are uninsured and seeking care.
“However, we continue to be concerned that people who do not have health insurance will delay getting the care they need," Canfield wrote in an email. “We encourage people to address all of their health care needs before they can potentially become an emergency.”
While there is no longer a tax penalty for being uninsured, multiple national studies suggest that there are numerous health and financial consequences for going without health insurance, including less access to care, poorer quality of care and worse health outcomes.
Jane Straight, a director at the United Way of Anchorage, which helps Alaskans sign up for insurance, said she’s noticed an increase in people looking for help.
“We have definitely helped Alaskans who have lost insurance due to job loss during the pandemic, but we don’t have any way of putting numbers to that,” said Straight.
United Way employs “health care navigators” who can, at no cost, help Alaskans sign up for insurance, either through Medicaid or through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace.
Straight said she wants Alaskans who’ve lost their health insurance to know that they have options, and that they can talk to someone about not having insurance for free by calling 211, Alaska’s helpline.
“Just don’t go uninsured without looking into it," she said.