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Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

When the coronavirus forced businesses to tell their employees not to work, most kept paying at least some of those workers’ wages — but not their health insurance premiums.

Why it matters: Millions of people have lost their income and their health care coverage at the same time during this pandemic, which could stick them with unaffordable medical bills or cause them to put off care they need.

The big picture: Nationwide, 52% of businesses told employees not to work at some point this year because of the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • In the spring, for example, many restaurants and retail stores didn’t fire or lay off their workers, but employees were simply unable to go to work because those businesses were closed or operating with only a skeletal staff.

By the numbers: Of the companies that told some employees not to work, most — 51% — kept paying at least some of those workers.

  • But only 42% of those businesses kept paying those workers’ health insurance premiums, according to the BLS data.
  • The industries hit hardest by the economic downturn — the ones where workers were most likely to have their hours cut or eliminated — were the least likely to keep paying health care costs.
  • In the finance and insurance industries, 62% of companies kept paying the insurance premiums of workers who were kept off the job. But in the hospitality and food service industries, it was just 23%.

Between the lines: The average employer-based health care plan in the U.S. costs about $7,000 per year for an individual and $20,000 for a family. Employers, not workers, pay the bulk of those premiums.

  • That’s a big, fixed expense that simply may not be sustainable for many employers in this economy — even ones that could afford to keep some of their workers’ wages flowing.

What’s next: Medicaid will pick up many of the poorest newly uninsured Americans, and plans sold through the Affordable Care Act will be an option for others.

  • But workers who fall through the cracks of that patchwork system could be stuck with wildly unaffordable medical bills if they’re managing a chronic illness or get sick before they find a new job.

The bottom line: Tying insurance coverage to employment leaves people in a lurch whenever the economy turns south.

Go deeper

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
24 hours ago - Health

Majority gives Dems new health care goals

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A narrow Democratic majority increases the odds that significant health care legislation could become law.

What they're saying ... The Kaiser Family Foundation's Larry Levitt listed health policies that Democrats may enact with a Senate majority:

  • Nullifying the pending GOP lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.
  • Making ACA premiums more affordable.
  • Offering incentives for states to expand Medicaid.
  • Allowing the government to negotiate drug prices.
  • Eliminating cost-sharing for coronavirus treatment.

Who to watch: Most Democratic policymaking on health care will come from the administration — specifically President-elect Biden's pick to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra.

  • Biden has also announced a task force, led by Marcella Nunez-Smith, on racial disparities in health care — a longstanding problem that got more urgent during the pandemic. 

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.

Updated Jan 15, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: Affordability and the next administration

On Friday, January 15, Axios' Caitlin Owens hosted a conversation on the future of health care affordability with a new Biden administration, featuring former CMS administrator Dr. Mark McClellan and former Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

Dr. Mark McClellan discussed the priorities of the incoming Biden administration and challenges in health care access and affordability exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • On President-elect Biden dealing with the pandemic: "[He] was elected above all else for an effective response to the crisis. And that means the first round of legislation has to focus on more effective vaccination, more effective testing, reopening the economy, and giving people the economic support they need."
  • On people not getting the care they need during the pandemic: "We've seen a lot of health care complications because people did not get help. We don't have a strong public health system in this country...Most people did not get help. If they were at risk for infections, they had to go find a way to get tested on their own."

Rep. Greg Walden unpacked the value of telemedicine and creating an affordable, patient-centered health care system.

  • How technology can bridge existing health gaps: "We've learned the importance and practicality of getting health care closer to the patient. I'm speaking specifically about telemedicine. I think it can be both cost-effective and so much more convenient for the patient...You shouldn't have to rush into a hospital for everything you need."

Axios Vice President Yolanda Taylor Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with the CEO of OptumHealth, UnitedHealth Group, Dr. Wyatt W. Decker, who discussed the pandemic as a moment for the industry to think differently about how they provide accessible care.

  • On the potential for telemedicine: "Let's put the decision-making, good information, and support in the hands of a person and help provide them with digital tools that can give them easy access to health care with excellent outcomes. We [can] do this in a whole variety of ways by providing telehealth solutions."

Thank you UnitedHealth Group for sponsoring this event.