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27 million in U.S. at risk of losing health coverage amid pandemic

CBS News logo CBS News 8/5/2020 CBSNews
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An estimated 5.4 million American workers lost their health insurance from February through May, one study finds. Nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 27 million in total are at risk of losing coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, and could be left struggling with COVID-19 or other illnesses along with a lack of income that can make paying medical bills nearly impossible. 

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"We're seeing an unprecedented loss in jobs, and what's going to come along with that, is unfortunately the loss of health insurance as well," Kaiser Executive Vice President Larry Levitt told CBS News' Michelle Miller.

He said the loss of health insurance is "particularly risky" during a pandemic, when people are at a heightened risk of "getting infected and potentially severely ill."

"People who don't have health insurance hesitate to seek medical attention, worrying about the big medical bills they may face," Levitt said.

Those losses mean Americans with preexisting conditions, like Georgia resident Rodney Watts, are left without coverage or work when they need it the most. 

"I'm a type-two diabetic, you know, and it's been real hard for me," Watts said. "Some days you want to go to the doctor and see what else is wrong with you, but you can't."

Watts was working as an overnight supervisor at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. When the pandemic hit, he lost his job and his health insurance along with it. 

"It was bad, it was real bad," he said. 

Watts' insulin costs him roughly $400, which he has been paying for with the $600 federal weekly jobless benefit that recently expired without a contingency plan in place. Congress is still deadlocked over an extension. 

"It's been a struggle," Watts said. "We've been managing, but you know, when that 600 goes away, I don't know."

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that four out of five Americans who, like Watts, lost their employer health insurance, are eligible for help through the Affordable Care Act or Medicaid, but many do not know about it. 

Larry Levitt said he was concerned that the lack of health insurance could have a negative impact on the fight against the coronavirus as well.

"We need people who have symptoms, who feel they may be sick, to get into care and get tested… so they can avoid infecting others," he said.

In Rodney Watts' case, the loss of one job and one person's health benefits puts an entire family at risk.

"When this interview is over, I'm not going to sit around. I got to go find work, I got to get my health coverage," Watts said. "Because I got a lot of people depends on me. I got a wife, I got grandkids. I got kids. I got a lot of people and I can't fail them. I can't fail them."

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