Millions of Americans Lose Their Health Insurance Along With Their Jobs

In the last two years, most Americans who lost jobs with health-insurance benefits also became uninsured.
In the last two years, most Americans who lost jobs with health-insurance benefits also became uninsured.

The massive job losses during the Great Recession not only hit Americans' bank accounts, but also -- in some cases -- their health. A new report by the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that backs health-policy research, estimates that 9 million adults lost their health insurance in the last two years.

In the U.S., the loss of a job also often comes with the loss of health insurance. According to the Commonwealth Fund survey, nearly a quarter (24%) of working-age adults -- an estimated 43 million -- had either lost their job or dealt with their spouse losing their job within the past two years. Of those who lost a job with health benefits, a majority (57%) also became uninsured.

"This survey tells a story of millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the recession, lost their health benefits too, and had essentially no place to turn for affordable health care coverage -- putting their health and financial security at risk," Commonwealth Fund president Karen Davis said in a statement.

Going Solo Proves Tough

Without their jobs, the unemployed have had great difficulty finding affordable coverage. Only 25% of those who lost their employer health insurance were able to get coverage through their spouse or other means, and only 14% continued their job-based coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, better known as COBRA.

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Many others tried to purchase individual coverage. But in the past three years, nearly three-quarters (71%) of the adults who tried to go it alone either had difficulty finding a plan that fit their needs or that they could afford, or were turned down for coverage -- or charged a higher price -- because of a pre-existing condition.

The Commonwealth Fund estimates that 52 million American adults (28% of working-age adults) found themselves uninsured at some point during 2010, up from 38 million (24%) in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, the situation was much worse for those who earn less. Some 54% of lower-income adults and 41% of moderate-income adults were uninsured for some time during the year, compared with only 13% of adults with higher incomes.

Skipping Health Care

Meanwhile, a whopping 60% more adults -- both insured and uninsured -- say they skimped on health care because of the cost in 2010 than in 2001. An estimated 75 million adults skipped doctor visits, failed to fill prescriptions or otherwise avoided health care to save money, according to the survey.

Back in November, another Commonwealth study back found that Americans are by far the most likely, among residents of industrialized nations, to go without health care because of costs.

More Americans -- insured and uninsured -- also are spending large shares of their income on health care and are having problems paying their medical bills or are paying off medical debt.

The result? Americans are making significant sacrifices: An estimated 29 million people have used up all of their savings to pay medical bills, while 22 million were unable to pay for basic necessities like food and 4 million declared bankruptcy as a result.

Affordable Care Act to "Bring Relief"

But there are some signs that the situation could improve. The Affordable Care Act provisions that are already in place are bringing some relief, the study authors claim.

"The silver lining is that the Affordable Care Act has already begun to bring relief to families," Davis says. "Once the new law is fully implemented, we can be confident that no future recession will have the power to strip so many Americans of their health security."

Once the law fully takes effect in 2014, nearly all the the 52 million Americans who are uninsured -- including those who lost their insurance during the recession -- will have access to comprehensive health insurance coverage, according to the report.

That could be an optimistic estimate, however. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the law will extend coverage to about 32 million people by 2019.