Washington (AFP) - The tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance will be covered by the government if they fall sick with the COVID-19 illness, the US health secretary said Friday.
Alex Azar told reporters that the CARES act, a coronavirus stimulus package passed by Congress, included $100 billion for health care providers who "will be forbidden from balance billing the uninsured for the cost of their care."
Instead, hospitals and health care professionals will be reimbursed at the rates for Medicare, a state insurance program for the elderly.
Azar added that people who have recently lost their jobs and thus their insurance would be eligible for a special enrollment period under health care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, passed under former president Barack Obama.
President Donald Trump has spent most of his tenure trying to undo the law, also known as Obamacare, and the marketplaces created under it where a large portion of the previously uninsured population were able to get coverage.
The latest official figures showed there were 27.5 million people without health insurance -- but the current number is likely far higher after 10 million people filed unemployment claims in the past two weeks.
The US is alone among wealthy countries in linking citizens' health care to their employers.
Though state insurance, called Medicaid, exists for those in poverty, many people whose jobs don't offer coverage are unable to qualify for it because their income is over the threshold, even though they cannot afford to buy insurance on the open market.
The Trump administration has added numerous additional barriers to qualifying for Medicaid and as a result the uninsured population has grown by several million after falling to record lows right after the Obama era.
Public health experts have repeatedly warned that the uninsured may be reluctant to seek treatment, placing themselves at greater risk and fueling the spread of the disease.