How Important Is the ACA for People Who Lose Their Jobs?

By Larry Levitt
September 4, 2020

For the first time in an economic downturn, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exists as a health care safety net for people losing their jobs and employer-provided health insurance. A new study provides some clues as to how well the health care law works for people who lose their jobs and insurance.
The study – by Sumit Agarwal and Benjamin Sommers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine – compares people who lost their jobs before and after the ACA went into effect in 2014 to see if there is a difference in how many people retained health insurance. During the pre-ACA period (2011-2013), there was about a 5% increase in the uninsured rate for people following a job loss. After the ACA went into effect (2014-2016), no such increase occurred. Instead, Medicaid and the marketplaces saw large increases in utilization.

With millions of Americans losing their jobs during the pandemic, the number of people without health coverage has undoubtedly risen. However, by how much is unknown, since we don’t track insurance coverage in real-time like we do employment. Many who have lost jobs may not have had employer-sponsored insurance in the first place, if they worked an industry like food service or retail. And the vast majority of people who are unemployed are classified as on temporary layoff, with employers who may be continuing health benefits for their furloughed workers, at least for now. However, the share of unemployed workers who have permanently lost their jobs is growing.
If the economic crisis persists, the number of people losing job-based health insurance will climb, making the ACA’s role as a safety net more relevant than ever.

Larry Levitt is the Executive Vice President for Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, overseeing KFF’s policy work on Medicare, Medicaid, the health care marketplace, the Affordable Care Act, women’s health, and global health.

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