The coronavirus pandemic is testing the American workforce in ways no one has ever seen. According to some estimates, the heavy-handed stay-at-home orders imposed in many states could lead to unemployment rates on par with the Great Depression before the end of summer. But a crisis like this doesn’t just create hardship; it also gives us reason to innovate and meet the needs of today.
Two generations ago, only the milkman would make deliveries to your door. Now, with a few taps of a smartphone, you can order a gallon of milk and all your other weekly groceries, complete with GPS tracking and an up-to-the-minute report of when your order will arrive. In these times of bare supermarket shelves, UberEats, Instacart, and DoorDash drivers have helped feed our neighbors and kept a small part of our economy on its feet. They’ve even been deemed “essential” workers in some places. But they aren’t immune to the virus, and many of them struggle with underlying health conditions. These hardworking couriers face danger on every delivery run, yet they lack good health insurance because they have no employer to get it from.
We need a better way to deliver health coverage to these folks and to all the other self-employed workers across our country. A bill I recently introduced in the Senate, the American Healthshare Plans Act of 2020, offers exactly that. This legislation would adapt the law to how we work in today’s economy, allowing all kinds of groups to offer health insurance to their members, whether that membership is based on employment or not.
Employer-based health insurance came about nearly 80 years ago, when people didn’t move around as much, and workers often stayed with one company from the time they graduated high school until the day they retired. These days, the average American works a dozen jobs in a lifetime, so his health benefits have to change a dozen times, too. What’s more, the self-employed sector now makes up almost a third of our labor market, and one out of every four self-employed workers has no insurance at all.
But employer-sponsored insurance still works well for those who can get it. Big corporations like GM and Toyota can leverage large numbers of employees to negotiate good rates from insurance companies, who want the business. That’s how large corporations can afford to offer generous benefit packages.
But why should anyone have to pay higher premiums just because they don’t work for a giant corporation? Current law arbitrarily locks people out of the large group market (and its more affordable rates) if they work for a company with fewer than 51 employees. The American Healthshare Plans Act would open the gates to that market to folks who work for small businesses or for themselves, so they can leverage strength in numbers, too.
The local business with one small storefront and three employees could join a healthshare through an auction site like eBay or Etsy, where it operates an online shop. Not only would the employees and their families then have access to quality coverage, but the storekeeper could use the savings to hire more workers and re-invest in the community.
Healthshares would also be fully portable, so people could carry them from job to job, and even in between jobs. The seasonal worker with a Costco or Sam’s Club membership could purchase a healthshare plan off the shelf, the same way he buys food and vitamins, and cough medicine for the kids. As long as he keeps that warehouse club membership, he won’t have to worry about losing coverage.
Without a bold new approach like this, this year’s spike in unemployment could strip health insurance from more than 7 million Americans — and millions more of their family members. On top of that, millions of the self-employed who are lucky enough to keep earning a living will remain uninsured or underinsured because they can’t afford premiums on the individual market.
By passing the American Healthshare Plans Act, Congress could retool our employer-based system for the way we live and work today. Doing so would open up new delivery routes to coverage, without blocking off the tried-and-true ones. Every day, our economy is innovating and adapting to meet the needs of modern life. Shouldn’t we have a health care system that can do that, too?