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The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Access to Health Care

By: Bethany Cole, Research Assistant for Health Policy
Published: July 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked the U.S. health care system. With the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression, millions of Americans have lost employer-sponsored health insurance. Since the beginning of the pandemic, visits to primary care physicians and outpatient specialists have declined, and many hospitals have postponed or cancelled elective procedures. Meanwhile, some hospitals have seen a surge in patients and have had to expand capacity and purchase expensive personal protective equipment.

These trends have compounded problems in a fragmented U.S. health care system that has persistent gaps in access to affordable coverage and care, especially for people of color. In addition to the current impacts on coverage and utilization, the pandemic is likely to have long-term effects on the cost, quality, and access to care in the United States. COVID-19 legislation has attempted to address the short-term negative impacts on patients and providers; however, the legislative provisions are temporary and do not fully address the long-term impact COVID-19 is likely to have on the U.S. population and health care system. This brief examines the pandemic’s current and projected future impact on the health care system and discusses possible policy options to maintain and improve access to care.