State and Federal Relief Prevented Deep Backslide in Health Care Affordability in California in 2020

Colin Planalp, Research Fellow, State Health Access Data Assistance Center


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In 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic meant the imposition of incredible burdens on every corner of US society, particularly the health care system and the people it serves. There were well-founded fears that the pandemic, and the concurrent economic crisis, could make health insurance and health care unaffordable for even more people — already a long-standing problem in California.

In response to the pandemic, the US government enacted historic relief programs, including multiple instances of direct cash payments to a majority of US families. Those federal policies coincided with California health insurance reforms that, while developed before the pandemic, were implemented in 2020.

As a result, despite the COVID-19 crisis — and perhaps due in large part to the pandemic relief programs and California’s own reforms — data from the California Health Insurance Survey (CHIS) show that Californians were largely protected from experiencing a major erosion in their ability to pay for health insurance and care. Despite this overall positive finding,  the 2020 CHIS data on health care affordability continued to demonstrate clear inequities by income and race/ethnicity.

Key Findings

  • California’s uninsured rate declines, yet cost remains top reason for lacking health insurance. The rate of Californians under 65 without health insurance reached a historic low of 7.0% in 2020. However, 51.9% of uninsured people said they lacked coverage because it was too expensive.
  • Rate of going without needed care due to cost dropped in 2020. Among the 8.6% of Californians who reported forgoing needed medical care in 2020, 32.0% said it was concerns about cost that caused them to go without care. That rate was significantly lower than the rate of 43.6% in 2019.
  • Fewer Californians reported difficulty paying medical bills. From 2019 to 2020, the rate of Californians reporting that they’ve had trouble paying medical bills in the past year declined significantly, from 13.3% to 11.1%. However, when breaking out the data by income, only those with higher incomes saw statistically significant improvement. Californians with lower incomes — 200% to 299% of federal poverty guidelines (FPG), 100% to 199% FPG, and below 100% FPG — reported no significant changes.
  • Less trouble affording necessities due to medical bills in 2020. In 2020, the rate of Californians who reported having trouble paying for basic necessities (such as food or clothing) because of medical bills declined significantly to 31.0% from 39.8% in 2019. Rates of trouble paying for necessities due to medical bills also declined across most income levels.
  • Practice of using credit card debt to finance medical bills declined. In 2020, the rate of Californians who reported taking on credit card debt to finance medical bills declined significantly, from 56.5% in 2019 to 44.3%. That finding held consistent for Californians across income levels — except for those with the lowest incomes.
  • Racial and ethnic disparities persisted in 2020. Although California experienced significant improvements in some measures of health care and insurance affordability in 2020, certain long-standing inequities persisted. For example, Black people reported the highest rate of trouble paying medical bills in 2020, at 14.0%, followed closely by Latinos/x, at 12.7%. Asians, Black people, and Latinos/x also reported similarly high rates of trouble paying for necessities due to medical bills (39.4%, 36.2%, and 33.1%, respectively).

Together, these findings provide some encouraging news. In a year of massive economic upheaval that would typically have caused serious financial problems for many Californians, they instead reported improvements in health care and insurance affordability. However,  improvements were likely due, at least in part, to federal programs that were mostly designed to be temporary. Some have already expired. Additionally, the historically high inflation of 2021 and 2022 have since strained people’s finances.

But the fact that California experienced such measurable improvements in health insurance and health care affordability during a broad and deep recession shows that those problems don’t have to be intractable. In the future, it will be key to monitor these measures as policymakers in California and at the federal level consider initiatives to protect people against unaffordable health care and insurance costs, which remain a long-term challenge.