Washington state embraced Obamacare for a crisis like COVID-19

Obamacare has enabled over 800,000 people to access health insurance in our state. You can too until May 8.

woman with face mask

A staff member stationed at the entrance waits for visitors at Country Doctor Community Health Centers in Seattle's Central District, April 1, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Coronavirus is taking its brutal toll on Washington state, killing hundreds in our communities — nearly 250,000 worldwide as of this writing — and upending our economy. Thousands of Washington workers continue to lose jobs, their health insurance coverage and, as a result, access to basic health care. 

Over 270,000 people across Washington lost their health coverage from mid-March to mid-April alone. As we weather these dark times, we can all be proud that our state fully embraced Obamacare, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), nearly a decade ago. The ACA enabled us to build a robust safety net around health insurance coverage. Now, we must direct workers who have lost their health insurance as a result of the coronavirus to Washington Healthplanfinder (www.wahealthplanfinder.org), our state’s excellent online resource for continued coverage.

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Incredibly, the United States continues to be the only developed nation on the planet that does not provide basic health coverage for every person. This inadequate system even leaves some children without coverage. Before Obamacare, nearly 50 million people — 15% of our country’s entire population — did not have equitable access to health care. The ACA has allowed more low-income individuals and families to qualify for Medicaid, and helped workers seeking their own private insurance pay for coverage that was previously prohibitively expensive.

In Washington state, Obamacare has enabled over 800,000 people to obtain health care coverage. As a result, our uninsured rate dropped from 14% to 5.4%, one of the largest reductions in the nation. Nationally, Obamacare cut the number of people without health insurance nearly in half. Because of the ACA, millions more people access primary and preventive care, and are now better able to manage serious conditions like hypertension, asthma and diabetes — some of the very conditions that significantly increase one’s risk of complications and hospitalization from COVID-19, especially if those conditions are not well-controlled.

Once the scale and repercussions of this pandemic became evident, and it became clear that thousands would be losing jobs and health care coverage, Washington opened a special enrollment period so that uninsured residents could get covered (our state wisely decided to establish its own health plan marketplace in the early days of the ACA). This special enrollment period runs through May 8. On the federal level, our current administration has inexplicably and unethically refused to allow any of the 38 states with federally overseen exchanges to open a special enrollment period, potentially denying millions of people the opportunity to obtain or maintain health coverage during this critical period. And we all know too well that the same administration continues to aggressively work to dismantle the entire ACA, driven only by ideology, not logic or reason.

Obamacare was built for moments of crisis like this. In Washington state, the ACA will provide a robust landing place for workers who lose their jobs, and the majority will be eligible for alternative coverage. Nearly one in four Washingtonians already enroll in health insurance through Washington Healthplanfinder, run by our Washington Health Benefit Exchange, one of the best in the nation. According to sources at the exchange and the Washington Health Care Authority, hundreds of displaced workers are accessing these services every day. We must make certain all affected workers know about Washington Healthplanfinder so that they can maintain coverage for themselves and their families.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a reckoning with many aspects of American life. Chief among them is our ridiculously complex health care insurance system and its accompanying economic, racial and gender disparities. But without the ACA, this public health crisis we face would be much worse, as millions more would be not only losing their jobs, but also losing access to health care. That would lead, in turn, to even more catastrophic consequences. As we begin the long and slow recovery process, let’s be thankful for Obamacare in Washington, and ensure all workers losing their jobs can access our state’s strong resources to maintain health coverage for themselves and their families. And, above all, we must continue to work diligently toward universal, equitable health coverage for everyone in America.

If you or someone you know has lost or will be losing health insurance coverage, contact the Washington Healthplanfinder customer support center from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday at 1-855-923-4633; TTY: 1-855-627-9604. Help is available in over 175 different languages.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dr. Jay Fathi

Jay Fathi

Dr. Jay Fathi is a family physician in Seattle and lifelong Washingtonian.