By Jessie Ice, P.Hd
June 29, 2022
For many residents of West Virginia, the last few years have felt like one hurdle after another. We have had to contend with COVID-19, the ensuing lockdowns and surging inflation in rapid succession. With these challenges taking center stage, it is easy to overlook a looming health crisis that is quickly approaching.
Tens of thousands of West Virginians have been able to access coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplaces. And the American Rescue Plan Act, which was enacted last year, expanded the ACA tax credits that reduce what individuals and families pay for their health insurance premiums. This assistance has provided crucial relief and stability at a time when there is so much uncertainty, loss and anxiety.
We all know that the pandemic hit our state particularly hard. While the situation has improved significantly, West Virginia is still in the top 10 states when it comes to COVID-19 death rates, and hospitalizations have increased 75% over the last month. Just last week, the state surpassed 7,000 lives lost to the disease. While the virus has directly impacted many of our families and friends, the ancillary effects have taken a toll as well.
The lockdowns and upheaval that occurred following the outbreak of COVID-19 have led to very troubling increases in anxiety and diseases of despair, as well as the exacerbation of existing mental illness. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed a 30% uptick in individuals reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder compared to pre-pandemic figures. The foundation’s study also revealed a 12% increase in individuals turning to alcohol consumption and substance use, citing pandemic stresses.
Given these mounting challenges, the need for affordable health coverage has never been greater. The data confirms that Americans and West Virginians have been signing up for health insurance through the ACA marketplaces at a record clip. In fact, since enhanced tax credits were enacted last year, 14.5 million Americans enrolled in ACA health coverage.
That said, it is important that the public is aware of the cliff that is rapidly approaching. ACA subsidies are set to expire later this year. If the subsidies are allowed to lapse, 18,000 West Virginians would pay more for health coverage and a total of 7,000 residents would become uninsured. And the damage could go beyond those estimations, given inflationary pressures on households across the state.
This expiration couldn’t come at a worse time. Just as our state is beginning to climb out of the pandemic, many West Virginians are struggling to make ends meet as the latest inflation report showed that prices increased 8.6% since this time last year. The price hikes were especially severe for food and fuel—the staples of any hardworking family’s budget. If the enhanced tax credits expire this year, a 55-year-old couple may be staring down the barrel of a $12,800 increase for the same health coverage they have today.
These days, we are bombarded with headlines and push notifications warning of yet another calamity. It often feels like the word “crisis” has been diluted to the point where it doesn’t have much meaning anymore. However, it is important that certain issues are able to cut through all the noise when they will impact so many West Virginians’ health and financial security.
Dr. Jessie Ice is the Executive Director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and has a doctorate degree from Florida State University in political science.