Reacting to the coronavirus pandemic that recently caused the cancellation of SXSW and other annual citywide events, freelancers and independently contracted workers in Austin are flocking to the health insurance market to buy coverage, new numbers show.

Recent data from Decent, an Austin-based company that administers health care plans for independent workers, shows health insurance coverage applications have tripled since March 10.

“These are often folks that are relatively healthy. Previously, they’ve made a bet on themselves. Now, they’re making a different bet,” said Nick Soman, founder and CEO of Decent. “The spike [in applications] has coincided with when the coronavirus hit Austin.”

Austin Public Health officials on March 13 confirmed the first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Travis County.

Decent offers independent workers the ability to acquire health insurance plans outside the open enrollment window, which ran from Nov. 1-Dec. 18. Soman said Decent is unique in allowing applicants to purchase insurance outside this window.

According to numbers provided to Community Impact Newspaper, 54% of all new plans sold by Decent include virtual direct primary care. These plans allow patients to receive general care over the phone or through videoconferencing.

Since March 10, the proportion of Austin residents applying for these plans has increased, according to Decent.

Nathan Ipson, owner of Metrocycle Pedicabs, bought insurance coverage through Decent. Ipson, who has Type 1 diabetes, said the virtual care model has allowed him to stay out of physician offices and pharmacies to maintain appropriate social distancing.

The American Diabetes Association on its website states people with diabetes face a higher chance of experiencing serious complications from COVID-19.

“All I've really done is meet with the doctor for initial consultation over video. ... Whenever I need a prescription filled, I just text him and he sends it in,” Ipson said.

CommUnityCare, the Central Health-funded health care organization that operates several clinics in Austin and its surrounding areas, on March 23 announced it is offering telemedicine services to protect patients and health care professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The convenience of virtual health care and telemedicine offerings, Soman asserts, may help boost the number of adults seeking health insurance at a critical time.

Texas has the highest number of uninsured residents of any state nationwide, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Austin, the number of independently contracted workers—who are generally not provided health insurance coverage through third-party employers—is steadily increasing.

Freelance service congregator Fiverr in 2019 commissioned a report on the population of skilled freelancers working in creative, technical or professional positions in the U.S. According to this report, Austin has the fastest-growing population of skilled independent workers of any U.S. city and is the second-fastest growing city in terms of revenue collected by independent workers. The report found that Austin’s skilled workforce grew more than 25% from 2011-16.

“The folks that buy our plans are typically self-employed people,” Soman said. “Our top sellers have been these virtual direct plans. ... I think people are buying them right now because of the convenience. You don’t have to leave your house, it means you’re not going into a waiting room and sitting next to a bunch of sick folks.”