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'We Can't Wait': Congress Urged to Open Medicare to Every Uninsured Laid-Off Worker

"Millions of workers and their families have been stripped of health insurance during a pandemic. Inaction is not an option."

A sign alerts customers that a business in Queens, which has one of the highest infection rates of coronavirus in the nation, is closed on April 03, 2020 in New York City. Public Citizen on Tuesday called for Medicare to be open to all Americans who are uninsured due to job loss as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Thousands of Americans have joined government watchdog Public Citizen in calling on Congress to open the Medicare federal healthcare program to anyone who loses health coverage due to job loss amid the coronavirus pandemic, as an estimated 3.5 million workers have so far.

More than 6,500 people have already signed the group's petition urging lawmakers to open up Medicare to the unemployed as businesses across the country are forced to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. 

"With millions of people losing their jobs because of a pandemic, it's both crazy and immoral for them to be stripped of health insurance," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "If we had a Medicare for All system, this kind of problem wouldn't occur. But we can't wait to win Medicare for All. The solution to this immediate problem is to enroll all unemployed people in Medicare."

Last week, as unemployment numbers surged and millions lost their employer-based coverage, calls went out for the Medicare eligibility age to be "dropped to zero" so that anyone could enroll.

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At least 10 million Americans filed jobless claims in the last two weeks of March. As Common Dreams reported last week, the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 3.5 of those people lost their health coverage as a result. In the coming months, the consulting firm Health Management Associates reported last week, 35 million Americans could lose their health coverage.

In recent days, centrist Democrats including former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner to be the party's presidential nominee, have called on the Trump administration to open the Affordable Care Act's health exchanges to the newly-uninsured. The exchanges are "the best resource we have," Biden said.

But with the healthcare marketplaces forcing Americans to pay monthly premiums and co-pays, Public Citizen said, Biden's demand will do little to help people have lost their income.

"With millions of people no longer getting a paycheck, paying insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses will only deter people from seeking care they need," the group said.

The non-profit health insurance data firm FAIR Health reported last week that uninsured Americans could face as much as $75,000 in medical bills if they contract COVID-19 and have to be hospitalized. 

In additional to creating grave personal financial hardships, said the group, the loss of insurance for potentially tens of millions of Americans will make it harder to slow the spread of the virus and keep the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.

"Not only can Medicare help individual Americans get through this crisis, but it also can help us collectively protect public health as the pandemic intensifies," Weissman said.

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