Arielle Bernstein Pinsof, John Bianchi and Michael Heinley
Arielle Bernstein Pinsof, John Bianchi and Michael Heinley co-authored this article.

In America today, we face two looming crises: the pandemic and systemic racism. And though they may appear unrelated, they’re closely interlinked. COVID-19 has hit those in poor health most severely; this means that Black and brown Americans—already less healthy, less well-paid, less securely employed and, consequently, less well-insured—bear the brunt of the coronavirus. According to Johns Hopkins, Black Americans are three times more likely to get COVID-19 than whites and twice as likely to die from it.

Americans’ health—particularly in communities of color—is now under assault from COVID-19 on a different front. A survey released by Civis Analytics and Finn Partners revealed an estimated 6.7 million Americans lost their health coverage between February and September as a result of COVID-19-related unemployment, and that Black Americans face a disproportionate risk of being uninsured.

Civis’ survey reported that while eight percent of Americans overall lost their health insurance coverage due to COVID-19, more than a quarter (26 percent) of Black Americans were uninsured by September, rising from 17 percent in February. Latinx Americans’ uninsured rates also climbed, from 18 percent in February to 21 percent in September. In comparison, 11 percent of white Americans were uninsured in February, rising only slightly to 12 percent in September.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

This loss of insurance leaves millions without access to healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic. What’s more, many may not realize it. The number of people confused over whether or not they lost health insurance increased, from 2.2 percent in February to 3.5 percent in September—an additional 3.2 million people. Among those aware that they’re uninsured, 46 percent now say they don’t plan to purchase health insurance this year, a jump from 33 percent last February.

The numbers add up to reduced access to care when people need it most, exacerbating and laying bare the effects of systemic racism on our nation’s and neighbors’ health. The health sector has a responsibility to act, communicating with clarity so that people have the information they need. All players—whether product innovators, payers, or providers—must rally to their patient-care mission, backing up their good words with meaningful deeds.

As communicators, we must support actors throughout the health ecosystem to make changes that will help stem these growing threats to individual, national, and economic health, and especially to our health equity. Here are five approaches for us to consider when counseling our health-sector clients:

Help patients stay on their meds: With more than 10 million people estimated to lose their insurance coverage by year’s end, according to 2020 research published by the Urban Institute, product developers must seriously consider ramping-up patient-assistance programs. Rebates, coupons, and providing needed drug products free of charge in the short term to those who have become uninsured can help keep people on their medications. The needs of those without insurance are pressing right now, especially for Black Americans, so there is no better time for drug companies to be good corporate citizens.

Ensure open doors for the uninsured: Hospital systems must marshal their public affairs divisions, intensifying efforts to help those who’ve lost their insurance. In this unprecedented emergency, hospitals can improve the health of local communities and aid in their economic recovery by offering free clinical care to those who have no job and no insurance; now is the time to be a good neighbor.

Shift the fee model: Payers need to consider how fee-for-service is failing our most vulnerable, and how they can support patients’ immediate needs during this emergency, scaling up support for affordable care and moving to value-based care or primary care capitation. To stem confusion, they must also better educate subscribers so they understand their options for care. Approaches like these that increase affordability and access will help the millions of Americans who’ve become uninsured now and after the pandemic is over.

Address mental health: it’s the epidemic within an epidemic. More than a third of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics, compared to about 11 percent in the first half of 2019, while Express-Scripts found prescriptions for anti-anxiety and insomnia medications and anti-depressants rose 21 percent in the first month of the pandemic. For many Black Americans, anxiety stems from two sources—the pandemic and racially-motivated violence—yet they’re less likely to seek help, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. Our payer, provider and hospital clients can do much more here, lowering barriers to care for Black Americans, especially those who have lost insurance, and investing in community-based public health education to reduce stigma associated with mental-health needs.

Close the digital divide: COVID-19 drove widespread adoption of telehealth, shifting the healthcare mindset to digital, and while Mc-Kinsey estimates a rise in telemedicine use from 11 percent in 2019 to 46 percent this year, many who could benefit most are too often left out. Many telehealth programmers assume patients have digital literacy or speak English, which isn’t always true. There’s a digital divide; and to close it, we must urge our hospital and provider group clients offering virtual care to support patients with loaner smartphones and tablets, better interpreters and digital education to ensure access. We must urge payer clients to reimburse digital appointments at the same rates as in-person visits.

Now’s the time to think creatively, engage thoughtfully and act with purpose for a “patient-centered” industry to communicate with patients who need help. These and other health-sector responses must be undertaken genuinely; not because they’ll boost reputation, but because, as gatekeepers to and providers of care, we have a responsibility to help. We must do it because it’s right.

In adversity, our true natures shine through. This isn’t the case only with people, but with companies as well. Right now, the twin crises of the pandemic and systemic racism require companies to act. As communicators, we must counsel our client partners to do so with responsibility and humanity.


Arielle Bernstein Pinsof is Partner, John Bianchi is Vice President and Michael Heinley is Senior Partner at Finn Partners.