Health insurance has become more essential with coronavirus in the air. But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, insurance coverage decreased for communities of color.

An Oregon Health Authority report reveals that Black people saw the biggest decline in coverage: 2.2% from 2019 to 2020. Hispanic people saw the next biggest drop at 1.8%, and for the Asian population, it was 1.5%. White people only saw a 0.1% reduction.

As community health navigator for the Coalition of Community Health Clinics, Denisha Brown assists those seeking to apply for the Oregon Health Plan intended for Oregonians who earn less than 138% of the federal poverty level. What she noticed was an increased enrollment among white Oregonians—becoming eligible for insurance intended for low-income families for the first time.

"What I got from that is that Black folks already had OHP, even working their essential jobs, which means they're under the federal poverty level even with working," Brown says. "OHP was already established."

Others lost coverage altogether, as the pandemic led to massive job losses.

Between April and December last year, the uninsured rate fluctuated dramatically from month to month for Black people, reaching a high of 26.6% in the fall. (It's currently at 10%.) But for white people, the uninsured rate remained relatively stable throughout those months, reaching a high of 9.2%.

Black people losing coverage, while simultaneously facing higher rates of poverty even before the pandemic, places them further from getting out of that poverty.

"If Black folks don't have insurance, that equals out-of-pocket costs and medical bills. That could mean bankruptcy or medical debt, and we know that can lead to poor credit," Brown says. "It's just a domino effect. It leads to more Black folks not being able to get credit cards, cars, not being a homebuyer."

Not to mention the fact that people without insurance are less likely to seek critical medical care, because they fear it will drive them further into debt.

"The pandemic has highlighted how important it is not only to have good health, but how the social determinants affect that," Brown says. "Being Black alone is the foundation of our health."

This reporting has been funded in part by a grant from the Jackson Foundation. See more Black and White in Oregon stories here.