By: Peg O’Connell
On July 14th, Care4Carolina hosted a virtual briefing on COVID-19 and the coverage gap. The quick take away from the briefing is that COVID has made the bad situation created by North Carolina’s failure to enact a solution to close the coverage gap much worse and that COVID has exacerbated historic health disparities in communities of color across our state.
Jason Gray, Senior Fellow for Research & Policy at the NC Rural Center, and a genius with numbers, estimated that the economic chaos caused by COVID has added as many as 191,000 people to the roles of the uninsured and that many of them now fall into the coverage gap. He also reminded attendees of the great positive impact that creating a solution for closing the gap could have on our state’s economy. Close to 40,000 healthcare related jobs could be created by 2022 if we were to close the gap. This would be especially helpful to the rural parts of the Old North State.
Dr. Lacy Hobgood from the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University explained the impact of COVID, coupled with the existing coverage gap, on our healthcare system. Again, the news is not good. Already financially strained hospitals are seeing more and more uninsured patients in their emergency rooms and many physician practices have had to close or cut back on the number of patients that they can see in their offices. So, during the worst health crisis in a century, hospitals and physician’s practices are in jeopardy of going broke. COVID didn’t cause all this but it has clearly exposed the underlying weaknesses in our healthcare system.
As alarming as the above is, the most disturbing news came from Dr. Karen Winkfield, Radiation Oncologist and Director of Cancer Health Equity at Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Winkfield laid out how COVID is disproportionately impacting communities of color in our state, and especially African-Americans. It was shocking to learn that, nationwide, Blacks are dying from COVID at a rate 2.5 times higher than Whites and, although African-Americans represent 21% of North Carolina’s population, they suffer 33% of the deaths.
There are a variety of reasons for this disparity, according to Dr. Winkfield, including underlying chronic conditions, social determinants of health and, let’s face it, conscious and unconscious racial bias that has been part of our society for far too long. And, wait for it, lack of access to affordable health insurance.
At the present time, African-Americans are two to three times more likely to have no insurance or be underinsured than their White counterparts. One of the chief contributors to this lack of affordable options to buy health insurance is North Carolina’s failure to close the coverage gap.
Finding a solution to close North Carolina’s coverage gap won’t fix all of the problems discussed in the briefing, but it sure would take us a long way down the road to a healthier, more prosperous and more equitable state.