LINCOLN - Since the economic fallout of the COVID-19 health emergency began in March, the number of workers applying for unemployment benefits has skyrocketed, and so has the number of people who lost their employer-based health insurance.

In Nebraska, 120,000 workers have lost jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and more than 56,000 have lost their health coverage.

Ben Zipperer, an economist with the institute, says access to health insurance already was tough before the health crisis.

"The current pandemic is really exposing, I think, the main weakness in this system, that we tie health insurance coverage to employment," he states. "Many countries have dealt with this problem by guaranteeing health insurance. That is something that we could do."

Zipperer says one short-term fix to help people who have lost coverage and can't afford to buy insurance without an income would be to extend Medicaid and Medicare to everyone affected by the crisis.

Nationally, 35 million Americans have lost jobs or been furloughed since mid-March, and more than 16 million have lost their health insurance.

Zipperer says access to affordable health insurance, unemployment benefits, even emergency food assistance is not easy during normal times. He says it can be especially terrifying for workers to lose their health insurance as a result of, and during, an ongoing pandemic.

"And now we're in an absolute health and economic crisis where over 30 million Americans have likely lost their job," he stats. "In that kind of crisis, we want to have the strongest social support systems as possible, and we don't have that right now."

Out-of-work Nebraskans have 60 days to enroll for coverage through the Affordable Care Act online at Loss of employment is a qualifying event that opens up a special enrollment period.

Once Nebraska fully expands Medicaid under the ACA, residents who lose their income altogether will likely qualify for the federal program, which doesn't charge premiums and has very low out-of-pocket costs.