The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on the sacrifices of America's health care workers, yet many of them live in poverty and can't afford health insurance.
A new study finds that more than 600,000 health care workers are poor and potentially without insurance or paid sick leave, and up to 4 million have health problems that put them at risk of dying from COVID-19.
"It's nice that politicians want to label health care workers heroes and that people are going out and banging pots for them. That's clearly raising people's morale. But it also is important to make sure they -- and everyone else in the country -- has health insurance and decent wages and sick leave when they need it," said lead researcher Dr. David Himmelstein. He's a professor of public health and health policy at Hunter College in New York City.
"There's no reason why Congress couldn't pass one of the measures that's before them that expands health insurance and also gives hazard pay to frontline workers," Himmelstein said. "Frankly, we need a $15 an hour minimum wage and universal health insurance and sick leave."
The pandemic has highlighted economic inequalities in the United States, Himmelstein said.
Americans who do essential and dangerous work -- including health workers, grocery workers, bus drivers and delivery drivers -- "can't make ends meet or afford medical care," he noted.
The researchers also found that nearly 29% of health care workers who care for patients don't have paid sick leave, and more than 1 million of these workers suffer from their own health problems.
Also, about 275,000 health care workers with medical conditions are uninsured, including 11% with diabetes and 21% with chronic lung disease, other than asthma.
For the study, Himmelstein and his colleagues used data from two surveys that included thousands of health workers.
The researchers identified doctors, nurses and nursing aides who worked with patients and determined how many of them were over 65 or had an underlying medical condition that put them at risk of illness and death from COVID-19.
These conditions included heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, severe obesity, moderate or severe asthma and liver disease.
Among nursing home workers, 12% were uninsured, compared with 9% of the general population, the findings showed. Of home care workers, most of whom don't have personal protective equipment, 15% didn't have health insurance.
"The lack of health insurance and the low wages and lack of sick leave are a problem for the health workers, but also put other people at risk, because that means that those frontline workers often can't afford to take a day off if they have some mild symptoms that could be coronavirus. So they may go to work when they're infectious," Himmelstein said.
The report was published April 28 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The pandemic points out many of the problems with health care in America, said Dr. David Katz, president and founder of the True Health Initiative, in Hamden, Conn.
The nation suffers from a burden of chronic disease and obesity, which increases risk for severe infection and death from COVID-19, he said.
And, "despite the improvements associated with the Affordable Care Act, we still have a sizable population without health insurance," Katz added.
This study shows that those who are protecting others during this historic pandemic are risking their own health, and many don't have the protections they need, he said.
"Immediately, there should be policies to ensure that those on the frontlines of care in this crisis may seamlessly access any care they may need," Katz said.
"When prevailing health and health care access are acute threats to our nation's capacity for crisis response, it's an indication that both need to figure among the nation's top priorities," Katz added.
For more on COVID-19, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.