One surprising way natural disasters impact health insurance coverage

A new study finds that people are more likely to get health insurance coverage in the wake of a disaster.

Headshot of Myles Ma, CPFC


Myles Ma, CPFCSenior ReporterMyles Ma, CPFC, is a certified personal finance counselor and former senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covered insurance and personal finance. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published|2 min read

Policygenius content follows strict guidelines for editorial accuracy and integrity. Learn about our editorial standards and how we make money.

Research has already shown that more people buy property insurance after a natural disaster. [1] [2] A new study, examining data from Louisiana, shows that they’re also more likely to get health insurance.

“The impact on risk perception goes beyond the destruction of property, but also toward health,” says Swarup Joshi, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University and one of the authors of the study.

Shop the country’s top life insurance companies

The study adds to the evidence that when people experience natural disasters, they’re more aware of risk — not just to their homes and property, but to their own health — and that they’re more likely to act to protect themselves.

How natural disasters affect how you think about risk

The new study, co-authored by Stephen Barnes and Dek Terrell, shows that when a disaster happens, people don’t just change how they feel about the risk to their property — their perception of health risks also changes, Joshi says.

The authors used survey data from 2007 and 2009, which came in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. The surveys asked whether people had health insurance coverage and whether they were affected by the disasters. 

The study shows that exposure to hurricanes increased health insurance take-up rates by almost 3%. The impact mainly came from people getting employer-sponsored health insurance. There was also a drop in Medicaid coverage, but it was eclipsed by the number of people getting insurance overall.

This could just be a sign that the labor market improves after a natural disaster, but even comparing places with similar job market conditions, more people got health insurance in the areas affected by a hurricane.

The increase was especially high among Black people, who were 5% more likely to get health insurance after a hurricane. In general, disadvantaged groups increased health insurance coverage more than average after a natural disaster. 

What this means for disaster response

Government-provided aid after a disaster is strongly correlated with an increase in health insurance government-provided aid after a disaster, Joshi says, showing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a big role to play in helping people get back on their feet.

In addition, if policymakers want to sign more people up for health insurance, people seem more open to getting coverage after a disaster. In a world where the federal government spends billions of dollars incentivizing people to sign up for health insurance, it could be an opportunity. [3]

“Here we have found a situation where people’s risk perception has changed,” Joshi says.

Image: Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images