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The number of uninsured Americans was up even before the pandemic

A copy of a health insurance application.
Millions of people have no health insurance in the United States.
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter


Nearly 30 million people in the US were uninsured at some point in 2019, the highest number since 2015. In total, 9.2% of the population didn’t have health insurance when interviewed for a US Census Bureau report last year.

The proportion of uninsured Americans has been steadily growing over the past few years, a trend that is likely to accelerate as the pandemic’s record unemployment causes many to lose their employer-sponsored health benefits.

The number of people in the US with health insurance steadily increased in the US between 2010 and 2015, with a significant boost thanks to Obamacare. But those gains—both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the population—have slowly eroded since Trump’s presidency. Though the impact of Trump’s anti-Obamacare policies is uncertain, the president eliminated the tax penalty for not having coverage, and expanded short-term insurance plans. Both these policies arguably weakened the health insurance market.

The decrease in the covered population has one notable exception. While the proportion of people relying on Medicaid fell slightly, from 17.9% to 17.2%, this was offset by an increase in those using state Medicare, up to 18.1% from 17.8% in 2018. Medicare users are set to become a higher percentage of the population in the coming years, as part of a “gray tsunami” as more baby boomers reach age 65.

For the nearly 30 million who were uninsured in 2019, and any others who lost health coverage along with their jobs this year, Covid-19 presents a serious financial risk as well as a health hazard. The average cost of a coronavirus treatment is around $30,000, Quartz reported earlier this year, while those who need a ventilator could end up paying $90,000.

The fear of being hit with astronomical bills will likely deter some people from seeking healthcare treatment when they need it. This, in turn, could worsen the spread of coronavirus, as people many will go untested and untreated to avoid medical bills.

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