What Will U.S. Labor Protections Look Like After Coronavirus?

https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-will-u-s-labor-protections-look-like-after-coronavirus?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&fbclid=IwAR1fNFaJM-Tz1jCoBQ3bTVJG5zdbuqcExQOujKz87J34csjOhRLm8C2Dxjo

As I was writing the draft of this article, I was checking my symptoms and awaiting the results of a test I underwent for Covid-19. This virus has upended my life, as it has for every last one of us, no matter where we fall on the socio-economic scale.

But the consequences fall more heavily on those at the bottom end of the wage distribution. That includes those risking their health as they sell us groceries, check our vitals, and sanitize our hospitals. Easily lost amid the chaos, however, is how this crisis may be an opportunity to improve employee protections — and not temporarily but permanently.

During bull markets, employers and policymakers often paint the hardships befalling low-wage workers as stemming from those workers’ personal failures. But when markets crash, we learn how these workers’ troubles were indicative of persistent, system-wide weaknesses.

As Warren Buffett wrote of the insurance failures exposed by 1993’s Hurricane Andrew, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Pundits cite Buffet to refer to firms that appear healthy during bull markets, only to get eaten alive during downturns. This month, however, the markets exposed a new group of skinny dippers: a government and an economic system that fail workers, and employers who haven’t or can’t fill this gap in public policy.

In response to the novel coronavirus, the stock market has been mostly in a free fall since late February. The low-wage service sector is facing widespread layoffs. And the tumbling markets have uncovered other deep inequalities among workers, who fall into two groups: those with access to employment protections like affordable healthcare, remote work accommodations, paid time off, and job security — and those without.

This second group, which includes the working class, often lack healthcare or face high out-of-pocket expenses. There are nearly 24 million uninsured working-age adults in the United States. Those with only a high school diploma or who did not complete high school are the least likely to be insured. Moreover, racial and ethnic minority groups face significant barriers to “good jobs.” They form 60% of the uninsured population but only 40% of the total population.

A quarter of all U.S. workers have no access to paid sick leave. Work-from-home options are slim, but many can’t afford not to work. Among workers at the bottom 10th of the earnings distribution, only 31% have paid sick leave. For comparison, 94% of the top 10% of earners have paid sick leave.

While many professionals enjoy protections that can help them ride out the pandemic with their livelihoods and family’s health intact, workers in the low-wage service sector have few options or resources to stay home to care for themselves, let alone their loved ones. And that burden to provide care largely falls on women. The workers lacking healthcare and paid sick leave are also the most vulnerable to layoffs and lost hours. The fate of service workers in travel and food services indicate what’s to come. Similarly, gig economy workers, migrant laborers, and those in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable.

How did we get here? Since the late 1970s, executives have prioritized boosting dividends for shareholders over protecting their employees, whose work has been outsourced, digitized, and downsized. In our book, Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, Ken-Hou Lin and I show how this shift in corporate governance undermined workers’ bargaining power. Although insurance coverage increased from the Affordable Care Act, overall working conditions, protections, and pay have diminished.

A more robust safety net would help to mitigate the consequences for workers today as it shores up the economy against future downturns. For years, U.S. policymakers have considered universal healthcare impractical because of its large scope and high startup costs. But as new unemployment claims surge to historical levels and Americans face the medical precarity of a pandemic, this crisis has laid bare the underlying problem of linking healthcare to employment.

Sick leave and universal healthcare would ease the stressors workers face and ensure the sick have time to recover, making them more productive when they return to work. Without the costs of insuring workers, employers could pay more. An income boost would generate more spending and stimulate the economy.

Broader protections would also support the self-employed, contract workers, and prospective entrepreneurs. The United States has lower rates of self-employment (6.3%) than countries with universal healthcare (e.g., Spain has 16%), and a lower share of employment at small businesses than any OECD country except Russia. Reducing the reliance on big businesses would free workers to find jobs that better fit their skills, creating a more nimble and innovative economy.

The current moment provides an opportunity to make lasting changes to the status quo and improve conditions for all workers. As sociologists have theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding inequality. And history provides a clue for how crises can provide opportunities to transform society in ways that reduce inequality. After the Great Crash of 1929, unemployment spiked, reaching 25% by 1933. In less than three years, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reduced unemployment to 9%.The New Deal achieved this feat through a vast and broad range of public works and conservation projects.

The New Deal transformed American society — from erecting iconic buildings and statues, to saving the whooping crane, to developing the rural United States, to planting a billion trees. New Deal workers built and renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, and 700,000 miles of roads. The New Deal hired 60% of the unemployed, including 50,000 teachers and 3,000 writers and artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The New Deal modernized, preserved, and employed the country, while reducing inequality between the haves and have-nots.

Facing a similar economic threat in the wake of the pandemic, we have a comparable once-in-a-century opportunity to make lasting changes that address the pressing problems of today, from inequality to climate change.

In today’s crisis, we could double down on the “trickle-down” approach of the 2008 financial crisis: stimulus to the banks, corporations, and their investors combined with tax cuts and temporary wage support as a short-term Band-Aid for immiserated workers. But Lin and I find that this approach left many workers flailing and worsened inequality, because the banks deposited, rather than invested, the stimulus funding and corporations borrowed the money to buy back their stocks, enriching top executives and shareholders.

Last week, the president signed into law a sweeping $2 trillion plan that combines money for states, loans for distressed businesses, and tax relief, paid leave, unemployment benefits, and cash for most citizens. But this plan only gives workers temporary benefits. Although the bill has stricter oversight and restricts buybacks, it is unlikely to reduce inequality unless it addresses the structural conditions making some workers more vulnerable.

While a New Deal approach may be infeasible amid a contagious virus, we can and should enact permanent policies protecting all workers. Sick leave and healthcare should be universal rights. We could adopt a “flexicurity” labor policy modeled on the Danish one. The Danes provide both flexibility for employers to hire and fire workers as needed and security for workers through generous benefits and retraining opportunities during unemployment.

Meanwhile, in my household, after 2.5 weeks of symptoms—from a dry cough to a tight chest to a low fever—my test results came back negative. Thanks to the healthcare and insurance provided by my employer, I will continue to do the work I care about.

While I am on the mend, the workers who sell our groceries, serve us food, clean our workplaces, and drive us to the doctor also need to take care. In this pandemic, they are risking their health and lives. And they deserve the same level of care as the people they serve: access to both preventative medicine and comprehensive treatment, and time to take a break, recover, and care for their loved ones. The coronavirus is our chance to extend these protections during times of crisis and far into the future.

 

 

Medicaid nearing ‘eye of the storm’ as newly unemployed look for coverage

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/medicaid-nearing-eye-storm-as-newly-unemployed-look-for-coverage?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTXpaa1pEa3pOVGN5T1RnMiIsInQiOiJNbUdDbys5YmFjZDh2MjB2WTd6T0ZRTUg1cGlIYnAyTjNhdzBHdnpEblpZVGxjZEpQM0xPSEFvVG9RdGJQbzdcL21KcmxGV2Vkb1RzWTQ4TnlQQlcxU1BIMXkrZEFMRWwxUDZpTGdpQVlpMVJMR01CRWFDMk1OSGpRSDlLK3RNUTEifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Medicaid nearing 'eye of the storm' as newly unemployed look for ...

As the coronavirus roils the economy and throws millions of Americans out of work, Medicaid is emerging as a default insurance plan for many of the newly unemployed. That could produce unprecedented strains on the vital health insurance program, according to state officials and policy researchers.

Americans are being urged to stay home and practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus, causing businesses to shutter their doors and lay off workers.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that more than 6.6 million people signed up for unemployment insurance during the week that ended March 28. This number shattered the record set the previous week, with 3.3 million sign-ups. Many of these newly unemployed people may turn to Medicaid for their families.

Policymakers have often used Medicaid to help people gain health coverage and healthcare in response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But never has it faced a public health crisis and economic emergency in which people nationwide need its help all in virtually the same month.

“Medicaid is absolutely going to be in the eye of the storm here,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. “It is the backbone of our public health system, our public coverage system, and will see increased enrollment due to the economic conditions.”

Meeting those needs will require hefty investments―both in money and manpower.

Medicaid—which is run jointly by the states and federal government and covers about 70 million Americans―is already seeing early application spikes. Because insurance requests typically lag behind those for other benefits, the numbers are expected to grow in the coming months.

“We have been through recessions in the past, such as in 2009, and saw what that meant,” said Matt Salo, who heads the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “We are going to see that on steroids.”

The majority of states have expanded their Medicaid programs since 2014 to cover more low-income adults under a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That may help provide a cushion in those areas. In the 14 states that have chosen not to expand, many of the newly unemployed adults will not be eligible for coverage.

It’s possible the pandemic could change the decision-making calculus for non-expansion states, Salo said. “The pandemic is like a punch in the mouth.”

But even without expansion in those states, the Medicaid rolls could increase with more children coming into the system as their families’ finances deteriorate. Many states don’t have the resources or systems in place to meet the demand.

“It is going to hit faster and harder than we’ve ever experienced before,” Salo said.

The unique circumstances of social distancing impose new challenges for those whose jobs are to enroll people for coverage. In California, where more than a million people have filed for unemployment insurance since March 13, much of the workforce that would typically be signing people up and processing their paperwork is now working from home, which adds a layer of complexity in terms of accessing files and documents, and can inhibit communication.

“It’s going to be certainly more difficult than it was under the [2008] recession,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director for the County Welfare Directors Association of California. She said that although strides have been made in the past decade to set up better online forms and call centers, it will still be a heavy lift to get people enrolled without seeing them in person.

In some states, the challenges to the system are already noticeable.

Utah, for instance, has seen a 46% increase in applications for Medicaid. (These applications can be for individuals or families.) In March 2019, about 14,000 people applied. This March, it was more than 20,400.

“Our services are needed now more than ever,” said Muris Prses, assistant director of eligibility services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which processes Medicaid enrollment. The state typically takes 15 days to determine whether someone is eligible, he said, though that will increase by several days because of the surge in applicants and some staff working at home.

In Nevada, where the hotel- and casino-dominated economy has been hit particularly hard, applications for public benefits programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, skyrocketed from 200 a day in February to 2,000 in mid-March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The volume of calls to a consumer hotline for Medicaid and health coverage questions is four times the regular amount.

In Ohio, the number of Medicaid applications has already exceeded what’s typical for this time of year. The state expects that figure to continue to climb.

States that haven’t yet seen the surge warned that it’s almost certainly coming. And as layoffs continue, some are already experiencing the strains on the system, including processing times that could leave people uninsured for months, while Medicaid applications process.

For 28-year-old Kristen Wolfe, of Salt Lake City, who lost her job and her employer-sponsored health insurance March 20, it’s a terrifying time.

Wolfe, who has lupus—an autoimmune disorder that requires regular doctor appointments and prescription medication―quickly applied for Medicaid. But after she filled in her details, including a zero-dollar income, she learned the decision on her eligibility could take as long as 90 days. She called the Utah Medicaid agency and, after being on hold for more than an hour, was told they did not know when she would hear back.

“With my health, it’s scary to leave things in limbo,” said Wolfe, who used her almost-expired insurance last week to order 90-day medication refills, just in case. “I am pretty confident I will qualify, but there is always the ‘What if I don’t?’”

Others have reported smoother sailing, though.

Jen Wittlin, 33—who, until recently, managed the now-closed bar in Providence, Rhode Island’s Dean Hotel―qualified for Medicaid coverage starting April 1. She was able to sign up online after waiting about half an hour on the phone to get help answering specific questions. Once she receives a check for unemployment insurance, the state will reassess her income—currently zero―to see if she still qualifies.

“It was all immediate,” she said.

In fact, she said, she is now working to help newly uninsured former colleagues also enroll in the program, using the advice the state gave her.

In California, officials are trying to reassign some employees—who are now working remotely―to help with the surge. But the system to determine Medicaid eligibility is complicated and requires time-intensive training, Senderling-McDonald said. She’s trying to rehire people who’ve retired and relying on overtime from staffers.

“It’s hard to expand this particular workforce very, very quickly by a lot,” she said. “We can’t just stick a new person in front of a computer and tell them to go. They’re going to screw everything up.”

The move away from in-office sign-ups is also a disadvantage for older people and those who speak English as a second language, two groups who frequently felt more comfortable enrolling in person, she added.

Meanwhile, increasing enrollment and the realities of the coronavirus will likely create a need for costly medical care across the population.

“What about when we start having many people who may be in the hospital, in ICUs or on ventilators?” said Maureen Corcoran, the director of Ohio’s Medicaid program. “We don’t have any specific answers yet.”

These factors will hit just as states―which will experience shrinking tax revenue because of the plunging economy—have less money to pay their share of the Medicaid tab.

“It’s all compounded,” said Lisa Watson, a deputy secretary at Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

The federal government pays, on average, about 61% of the costs (PDF) for traditional Medicaid and about 90% of the costs for people who joined the program through the ACA expansion. The rest comes from state coffers. And, unlike the federal government, states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. The financial squeeze could force cuts in other areas, like education, child welfare or law enforcement.

On March 18 (PDF), Congress agreed to bump up what Washington pays by 6.2 percentage points (PDF) as part of the second major stimulus bill aimed at the economic consequences of the pandemic. That will barely make a dent, Salo argued.

“The small bump is good, and we are glad it’s there, but in no way is that going to be sufficient,” he said.

 

 

 

Trump rejects Obamacare special enrollment period amid pandemic

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/31/trump-obamacare-coronavirus-157788?fbclid=IwAR1nbCE7Uwvo2CNi6d6W5NG9zEIQulyh-noy1RXdk_0RJstMM0C5VYJ8mO4

Trump rejects opening ObamaCare special enrollment period amid ...

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 30 million Americans were uninsured and as many as 44 million were under-insured, paying for bare-bones plans with soaring deductibles and copays. Today, millions more Americans will begin losing their employer-based health insurance because they’ve lost their jobs during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is still actively trying to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act in court, which would cause an additional 20 million people to lose insurance *in the middle of a pandemic*.

And today, Trump refused to reopen ACA enrollment to those millions of uninsured Americans for a special enrollment window, leaving them without any affordable options to get covered. People are going to die because they can’t afford to seek treatment or end up saddled with thousands of dollars of medical debt if they do. Remember this the next time someone tries to tell you Medicare for All is too radical.

What do you think?

The Trump administration has decided against reopening Obamacare enrollment to uninsured Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, defying calls from health insurers and Democrats to create a special sign-up window amid the health crisis.

President Donald Trump and administration officials recently said they were considering relaunching HealthCare.gov, the federal enrollment site, and insurers said they privately received assurances from health officials overseeing the law’s marketplace. However, a White House official on Tuesday evening told POLITICO the administration will not reopen the site for a special enrollment period, and that the administration is “exploring other options.”

The annual enrollment period for HealthCare.gov closed months ago, and a special enrollment period for the coronavirus could have extended the opportunity for millions of uninsured Americans to newly seek out coverage. Still, the law already allows a special enrollment for people who have lost their workplace health plans, so the health care law may still serve as a safety net after a record surge in unemployment stemming from the pandemic.

Numerous Democratic-leaning states that run their own insurance markets have already reopened enrollment in recent weeks as the coronavirus threat grew. The Trump administration oversees enrollment for about two-thirds of states.

Insurers said they had expected Trump to announce a special enrollment period last Friday based on conversations they had with officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs HealthCare.gov enrollment. It wasn’t immediately clear why the Trump administration decided against the special enrollment period. CMS deferred comment to the White House.

Trump confirmed last week he was seriously considering a special enrollment period, but he also doubled down on his support of a lawsuit by Republican states that could destroy the entire Affordable Care Act, along with coverage for the 20 million people insured through the law.

People losing their workplace coverage have some insurance options outside of the law’s marketplaces. They can extend their employer plan for up to 18 months through COBRA, but that’s an especially pricey option. Medicaid is also an option for low-income adults in about two-thirds of states that have adopted Obamacare’s expansion of the program.

Short-term health insurance alternatives promoted by Trump, which allow enrollment year-round, is also an option for many who entered the crisis without coverage. Those plans offer skimpier coverage and typically exclude insurance protections for preexisting conditions, and some blue states like California and have banned them or severely restricted them. The quality of the plans vary significantly and, depending on the contract, insurers can change coverage terms on the fly and leave patients with exorbitant medical bills.

Major insurers selling Obamacare plans were initially reluctant to reopen the law’s marketplaces, fearing they would be crushed by a wave of costs from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But the main insurance lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, endorsed the special enrollment period roughly two weeks ago while also urging lawmakers to expand premium subsidies to make coverage more affordable for middle-income people.

Congress in last week’s $2 trillion stimulus passed on that request, as well as insurers’ petition for an open-ended government fund to help stem financial losses from an unexpected wave in coronavirus hospitalizations.

Democrats pushing for the special enrollment period are also grappling with the high costs facing many people with insurance despite new pledges from plans to waive cost-sharing. Obamacare plans and a growing number of those offered by employers impose hefty cost-sharing and high deductibles that could still burden infected Americans with thousands of dollar in medical bills.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on a press call Monday contended that “we also need to have free treatment” after Congress eliminated out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus tests.

“We did the testing, which is now free, and everybody, regardless of their insurance, gets it,” Pallone said. “But that has to be for the treatment as well.”

 

 

 

 

Coronavirus exposing holes in employer insurance

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-b2d1f1a0-5216-42bc-97d9-2eace5b84c05.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

The coronavirus is exposing the holes in employer health insurance ...

A record 3.3 million people filed for unemployment in one week, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, but people didn’t just lose their jobs. Many also lost the health insurance that came with the job, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

Why it matters: U.S. workers, even those who feel relatively secure in their health benefits, are a pandemic away from falling into the ranks of the uninsured.

Many of the people losing their jobs right now may not have had coverage to begin with — which would make the coronavirus-related disruption smaller, but still highlights the very large holes in this system.

  • The concern: People who get the virus but don’t have insurance are susceptible to high medical bills, or even death if they avoid or are denied treatment.

The big picture: People who lose their jobs have some options.

  • COBRA: This option allows people to keep their employer coverage for up to 18 months. However, people have to pay the full insurance premium — an average of $1,700 a month for a family plan.
  • Medicaid: State Medicaid agencies determine eligibility on current income, so this may be the easiest, lowest-cost way for people to get health coverage.
  • Affordable Care Act plans: The health care law created marketplaces for coverage, and people who lose their jobs can sign up outside the standard enrollment window.
  • Short-term plans: These stopgap plans, promoted by the Trump administration, provide some coverage but often don’t cover major hospitalizations.

 

 

 

 

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: The Affordable Care Act Turns 10

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: The Affordable Care Act Turns 10

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The past decade for the health law has been filled with controversy and several near-death experiences. But the law also brought health coverage to millions of Americans and laid the groundwork for a shift to a health system that pays for quality rather than quantity.

Yet the future of the law remains in doubt. Many progressive Democrats would like to scrap it in favor of a “Medicare for All” system that would be fully financed by the federal government. Republicans would still like to repeal or substantially alter it. And the Supreme Court recently accepted another case that could invalidate the law in its entirety.

In this special episode of KHN’s “What the Health?” host Julie Rovner interviews Kathleen Sebelius, who was secretary of Health and Human Services during the development, passage and implementation of the health law.

Then Rovner, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News, who have all covered the law from the start, discuss the ACA’s past, present and future.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although the creation of the ACA is often attributed to the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress at the time, work on a health care plan actually began well before then with small-group meetings among stakeholders, congressional hearings across the country and efforts by Sen. Ted Kennedy to galvanize interest. Much of those interactions were bipartisan and included industry leaders too.
  • Despite the vehement Republican opposition to the ACA and its many critical junctures (the death of Kennedy and his replacement by Republican Scott Brown; two tight Supreme Court decisions; and the calamitous debut of the marketplace website, among other issues), the law has proved popular. When Republicans gained control of the White House and Congress, their efforts to repeal the law helped focus consumers’ interest on the law and safeguard it.
  • How will the November election affect the law? If President Donald Trump is reelected, he is unlikely to renew the effort to repeal the law, but that doesn’t mean the assault on the law is over. Efforts to change the ACA could continue through the courts and through administrative rulemaking.
  • If a Democrat is elected, modifications to the law are generally expected to be incremental and perhaps deal with changes such as expanding the number of people getting subsidies and fix some glitches in the law.

 

 

 

Ten Years After: The ACA’s Success in Five Charts

Ten Years After: The ACA’s Success in Five Charts