The Memo: Scale of economic crisis sends shudders through nation

Pandemic derails resilient US economy | TheHill

New data released Thursday revealed the scale of the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus crisis — and experts say there is no end in sight.

More than 6.6 million new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending March 28, according to the Department of Labor. The figure was double that of the previous week, which had itself been by far the highest since records began.

The stark reality is that roughly 10 million people have been dumped from their jobs in two weeks. A previously robust economy has been scythed down by the virus. A nation that had been enjoying its lowest unemployment rate for decades is now virtually certain to see jobless totals surpass those of the Great Recession a decade ago.

“The present economic situation is awful,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard University professor who served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “The data is just telling us what we can see with our own eyes — there is very little business happening.”

Economists who had already been deeply worried about the immediate outlook are now wondering if their earlier projections were in fact too rosy.

“In our earlier scenario, we had expected 6.5 million job losses by May,” said Beth Ann Bovino, the chief U.S. economist at Standard & Poor’s. That figure will be exceeded, she now believes, given that there were “more lockdowns, more business closures and more businesses just trying to keep themselves alive” by laying off workers.

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said that even the 10 million figure for new unemployment claims was “likely a massive undercount” of actual losses because, during that period, self-employed people and workers in the so-called “gig economy” were generally not eligible to apply. This is changing as a consequence of the package recently passed by Congress that extends eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as providing other aid for businesses and individuals.

“Our estimate is that by the end of June, 20 million people will have lost their jobs — and I am wondering if even that is optimistic,” Shierholz said.

The political ramifications of such a huge economic shock are unknowable.

President Trump had been looking forward to using the economy as his strongest card as he seeks a second term in November. That card has been shredded.

Trump has promised repeatedly during his White House briefings on the crisis that the nation can bounce back very fast once the public health dangers have receded.

Trump’s approval ratings have also ticked up modestly since the crisis began in many polls. He may be benefitting from the traditional “rallying around the flag” effect that has occurred in previous moments of crisis.

President George W. Bush, for example, hit 90 percent approval in a Gallup poll — the highest result for any president in the polling organization’s history — right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In a statement on Thursday, probable Democratic nominee Joe Biden hit Trump for “failing to prepare our nation” for the ramifications of the coronavirus crisis. Biden called on Trump to allow open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and also jabbed at Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for having referred to previous unemployment figures as “not relevant.”

In response, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh blasted back at Biden for “ineffectively sniping from the sidelines, stumbling through television interviews, and hoping for relevance and political gain.”

Economic experts caution that Trump’s promises of a v-shaped recovery, in which the nation jolts itself back into strong economic shape quickly, are almost certainly unrealistic. It will not be a matter of the nation simply rolling the shutters back up and returning to business as usual.

“The economy is not symmetrical,” said Furman. “It is easier to separate someone from a job than to connect someone to a job. In recessions, the unemployment rate can go up very quickly and it comes down very slowly. The worry is that this will be like that.”

Several economic experts who spoke with The Hill made similar points, unprompted, as to the ways the federal government could ease the crisis.

One refrain was that huge assistance needs to be made available to states. States are generally required to balance their budgets. In a situation like the current one, where their tax revenue is cratering, this means they are obligated to severely cut spending — something that most economists believe would deepen and prolong the recession.

Another theme was the need to tie together financial assistance for businesses and the retention of employees.

The recently passed stimulus package makes some effort to do that, particularly in the case of small businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program extends loans to small businesses based upon eight weeks of payroll costs plus an additional 25 percent of the total.

The payroll portion of the loans would be forgiven — rendering them in effect a grant, not a loan — so long as the workforce was maintained at existing levels.

Economic experts praise the principle but worry that the total amount of money in the pot for these loans — $349 billion — may not be enough. 

“The small business subsidies will be critical,” said Steven Hamilton, an assistant professor of economics at The George Washington University. “The government needs to get the word out on those, and Congress will likely need to pass an expansion both to adequately fund the existing scheme and to make the scheme more generous to businesses to keep them from laying off workers.”

The public seems to share the view that the aid package, which also includes checks of up to $1,200 for individuals, is a move in the right direction — but unlikely to suffice.

A CBS News poll released late Thursday afternoon indicated 81 percent of Americans support the recent legislation but 57 percent also say it likely won’t be enough.

The same trepidation is shared by the experts, given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus and the economic crisis it has created.

“It’s like nothing we have ever seen before,” said Shierholz.





Jobless claims spike to another weekly record amid coronavirus crisis

Jobless claims spike to 6.6 million, another weekly record amid ...

6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week, a staggering number that eclipses the record set just days ago amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to government data released Thursday.

Why it matters: Efforts to contain the outbreak are continuing to create a jobs crisis, causing the sharpest spikes in unemployment filings in American history.

  • The colossal number of unemployment filings is worse than most Wall Street banks were expecting.

The big picture: Nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment claims in recent weeks, as businesses around the country shut down in response to the pandemic.

  • But the data lags by a week, so it’s almost certain labor departments around the country are still processing claims and people are still applying.




Trump rejects Obamacare special enrollment period amid pandemic

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, 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 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 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

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.





What health care is getting out of the stimulus package

Senate passes $2 Trillion coronavirus economic stimulus plan, it ...

Congress’ big stimulus package will provide more than $100 billion and several favorable payment policies to hospitals, doctors and others in the health care system as they grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

The big picture: Hospitals, including those that treat a lot of rural and low-income patients, are getting the bailout they asked for — and then some.

The cornerstone provision is a no-strings-attached $100 billion fund for hospitals and other providers so they “continue to receive the support they need for COVID-19 related expenses and lost revenue,” according to a summary of the legislation.

  • It’s unclear how that money would be divvied up. One lobbyist speculated the funds would go to the “hardest-hit areas first and those areas that are next expected to get hit,” but that has not been clarified.

The bill provides many other incentives for the industry.

  • Hospitals that treat Medicare patients for COVID-19 will get a 20% payment increase for all services provided. That means Medicare’s payment for these types of hospital stays could go from $10,000 to $12,000, depending on the severity of the illness.
  • Employers and health insurers will be required to pay hospitals and labs whatever their charges are for COVID-19 tests if a contract is not in place. By comparison, Medicare pays $51.33 for a commercial coronavirus test.
  • Medicare’s “sequestration,” which cuts payments to providers by 2%, will be lifted until the end of this year.
  • Labs won’t face any scheduled Medicare cuts in 2021, and won delays in future payment cuts as well.

What’s missing: Patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 could still be saddled with large, surprise bills for out-of-network care.

  • There also are no subsidies for COBRA coverage, which employers wanted for people who lost their jobs. However, people who are laid off are able to sign up for a health plan on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces or could qualify for Medicaid.





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.