When thousands of Berkshire County residents lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, many of them lost health insurance, too.
“People are desperate,” said William Cruz, senior patient navigator at Community Health Programs Berkshires. “They don’t even remember insurance until they need it because they’re searching for a job, trying to support their family.”
With CHP, Cruz helps people without insurance apply and get approved for new plans, including MassHealth or state-subsidized programs. CHP has served more than 400 families this year, about 50 more than it did last year, and receives 19 to 30 inquiries a day, he said.
CHP doubled its insurance assistance team from two to four this year, courtesy of a $150,000 state grant.
Berkshire Health Systems’ Advocacy for Access program also provides insurance application assistance, and so do BHS community partners SHINE in Pittsfield and Ecu-Health Care in North Adams. Language interpretation services are available at the Advocacy for Access location at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.
“The services are here, and it tends to be a little-known service, so, if people are more aware of it, we would love for them to take advantage,” said Jennifer Vrabel, a BHS spokesperson. “For anyone impacted by the pandemic or otherwise, it’s a good time to review and see what you’re eligible for.”
While most wealthy nations provide universal health coverage, the United States is an outlier in that insurance often is tied to one’s employer.
Estimates projected that more than 10 million people in the U.S. could lose their health insurance, whether because they lost a job or because a financially strapped employer cut health expenditures, with the losses expected to have a disproportionate effect on Black and Latino people. In addition, 320,000 children already have become uninsured, a Georgetown Center for Children and Families report found.
Uninsured people face tax penalties under Massachusetts law.
Massachusetts’ open enrollment period runs through Jan. 23. While some people still can get insurance after that, professionals say it’s best not to wait.
Massachusetts residents covered by MassHealth, a state program for residents who meet financial eligibility requirements, increased by about 116,000 — 10 percent — from March to September, according to the state Center for Health Information and Analysis.
The numbers of people on MassHealth and subsidized Health Connector plans likely are linked to employment trends. Massachusetts and Berkshire County both have seen a decrease in employment since the pandemic, according to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the Berkshires, 56,237 were employed in November. At least 61,676 people were employed each month in 2019. The labor force has been smaller in each month of 2020 than in 2019, suggesting that fewer people are looking for work.
Amid an economic and public health crisis, it’s important that no one goes uninsured, Cruz said.
“Don’t wait. Don’t feel scared,” he said. “Just know that we have a good group of professional navigators who are willing to help.”