Fact check: Do 50 million people really lose health coverage each year because of their jobs?

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), former tech executive Andrew Yang, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, and former housing secretary Julian Castro appear on stage before the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)
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By Emmarie Huetteman Kaiser Health News (TNS)

The moderators kicked off the third Democratic debate Thursday with the topic of health care, teeing up another round of the ongoing “Medicare for All” debate.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders caught our attention by claiming that 50 million people lose their private insurance every year due to employment changes.

“George, you talked about, was it 150 million people on private insurance? 50 million of those people lose their private insurance every year when they quit their jobs or they go unemployed or their employer changes their insurance policy,” Sanders said.

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That sounds like a huge number even before he qualified it by attributing it to job loss and other work-related occasions for an insurance lapse.

We reached out to the Sanders’ campaign to discover the basis for this claim and were pointed to an analysis by the People’s Policy Project, a social Democratic-leaning think tank. That analysis hinges on a question asked as part of a national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in 2014, plus a little basic multiplication.

The survey asked adults between ages 18 and 64, in 43 states: “In the past 12 months was there any time when you did not have any health insurance or coverage?” In response, 12.9% said they had experienced a gap in coverage, while 11.5% said they had been uninsured for more than 12 months.

The think tank analysis then combined those percentages and multiplied them by current population estimates, coming up with “just under 50 million people” who were uninsured for at least part of the year. (It went on to endorse Medicare for All.)

This claim becomes perplexing when you consider the total number of uninsured people in recent years. In 2013, overall there were more than 44 million uninsured, Americans under age 65. With the initial implementation of the Affordable Care Act, that number steadily declined until last year when it ticked up slightly to 27.5 million.

A Sanders spokeswoman also cited another People’s Policy Project blog post analyzing the number of people who leave their jobs (66.1 million in 2018, it said) and government data on the number of jobs the average worker has had by age 50 (11.9).

The campaign specifically pointed to this sentence in the blog post: “This labor turnover data leaves little doubt that people with employer-sponsored insurance are losing that insurance constantly, as are their spouses and kids.”

The CDC data is compelling, to be sure — but Sanders did not accurately portray what it said on the debate stage, nor did he accurately portray the policy analysis his campaign claimed was his source.

Sanders appears to suggest that one-third of those with private insurance are uninsured for at least a short time every year because of a change to their employment benefits.

In actuality, the CDC data shows that about 24.4% of adults under age 65 in 2014 had experienced at least a gap in insurance coverage in the previous year. The question did not ask respondents to specify the cause.

The age of the report also poses a challenge: The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion began in 2014, and the report surveyed just 23 Medicaid expansion states at the time. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, suggesting the number of people with insurance gaps on an annual basis could have dropped.

And the People’s Policy Project analysis actually refers broadly to 50 million Americans under age 65 who were uninsured, temporarily or otherwise — it doesn’t say those people were uninsured because their job situation changed.


Sanders said that 50 million of those people lose their private insurance every year “when they quit their jobs or they go unemployed or their employer changes their insurance policy.”

Sanders has a point that coverage continuity is a big problem in a country where roughly 150 million get their insurance from their jobs. But his claim inflates the scope of the problem.

He took a broad finding of the number of people who had experienced an insurance gap for any reason roughly five years ago and misleadingly used it to describe a much narrower segment of the current population who lost insurance because of employment changes.

The claim has an element of truth but leaves out critical information that would give a different impression. We rate the statement Mostly False.

(Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. This fact check was produced in partnership with PolitiFact.)
©2019 Kaiser Health News
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