Millions of Americans lost their jobs in the months following the start of the pandemic, and many more had precarious, partial or sporadic work that did not cover their health costs. Since health insurance is linked to employment for most people, according to the US Census Bureau, this could leave a large number of people without insurance at all.
If this describes your situation, there is something you can do right now, through two government programs.
You can buy a low cost or even free health care plan from the Affordable Care Act market by signing up for what is commonly referred to as Obamacare. And if you lost your job, you could take advantage of a provision in the recent stimulus bill that allows you to maintain the health coverage you had with your employer – the government paying your insurance premiums. This essentially makes what’s called COBRA insurance free, for at least part of that year.
Affordable Care Marketplace open registration is usually open once a year, in November and December. This is the only time anyone can choose a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act, or ACA; special circumstances, such as the loss of a job, may also open a registration period for some people. Some states use their own national markets to offer a similar option.
But this year the ACA market was reopened – with a January executive order from President Joe Biden – for an extraordinary listing period until May 15, allowing more people to consider their options in the market. , even without a qualifying event such as a recent loss. employment-based health care.
Anyone without medical coverage would benefit from a new review of the affordable care market portal’s options, Healthcare.gov, as many of them have changed this year due to new legislation and have become more affordable. These changes, in many cases, will remain in effect until the end of 2022, making Obamacare a viable medium-term option for people who might otherwise not have access to health insurance. .
Who is eligible to register in the Affordable Care Marketplace
A variety of individuals and families are newly eligible to enroll in the ACA’s subsidized healthcare market plans, and thanks to the stimulus package passed by Congress last month, they will be paying less than before. The stimulus will save money on premiums for 14.9 million currently uninsured people, government figures show.
About 1.7 million currently uninsured people with incomes 150% of the poverty line or less (about $ 19,000 for a single person and $ 39,000 for a family of four) will be eligible for a retirement plan. free base in the market.
Don’t assume you’re making too much money to try the KFF health premium calculator or simply apply for subsidized insurance options through Healthcare.gov. Neither site costs you anything up front, and new provisions in the stimulus bill could help you find affordable insurance.
People who choose plans with greater coverage in Silver or Gold levels, or who earn more than 150% of the poverty line, will have to pay, but less than before.
One element of the expansion that is particularly useful is that there is now an income share premium cost cap for all income levels: no plan will charge more than 8.5% of income, regardless of income level. level of that income. This means that even people with incomes well above the poverty line might be eligible for a less expensive plan.
If you are employed but have very expensive health insurance premiums or no health insurance is offered as part of your job, you may also be eligible for membership in an ACA plan. The expansion is large enough that the unemployed, underemployed, and low to middle income earners can all benefit from reviewing their Obamacare options.
What you can expect to pay
Many people who earn poverty or near-poverty wages will find that they qualify for a completely free ACA or Obamacare plan through their state exchange or through Healthcare.gov.
For higher tier plans or for higher incomes, the additional tax credits available – which lower premium costs up front – are likely to be on average about $ 50 less per person, or $ 85. less per policy, per month.
COBRA is no longer unaffordable
People who have lost their jobs and the health insurance that came with it can turn to COBRA, a federal program that keeps them on the same level, but only by paying the full cost – including the part that the employer previously paid. It’s so expensive that a lot of people choose not to use this option. With the stimulus package, also known as the US bailout, this is no longer the case.
If you are currently eligible for COBRA, you may be eligible to have your entire premium covered by another provision of the plan, until September 31. While it may still be a good idea to switch to an ACA plan, especially if you are now eligible for free insurance premiums until the end of 2022, some may prefer to keep their employer plan during the period. duration of the COBRA premium.
“The problem with dropping out of a COBRA plan is that you may have already hit your spending limit, so switching to a market plan would require you to start over with franchises,” says Amy O’Meara Chambers, Director of operations at HealthBridge, which has worked for over 25 years in the healthcare industry. “If you are in some form of medical management with your health plan with your employer, switching to a market plan is not always practical and can be worrisome.”
While many people also consider going without health insurance between jobs, the high cost of uninsured medical bills makes this extremely risky. As part of the US bailout, you don’t have to take this potentially dangerous route.
“Take a good look at all the options. You may have once been in a position where the markets weren’t attractive because you were making too much money, but now you may be eligible to get a comprehensive plan at an affordable price, ”says Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation, a nonprofit campaign on unemployment and work in the United States. “If you have the comfort of knowing you can get prescriptions and care, you’ll be in a better place to seek the kind of job you had before the pandemic.”
How to apply for Obamacare
You can get an idea of what you are entitled to by using this Kaiser Family Foundation Health Insurance Market Calculator, which is updated to take into account the provisions of the American Rescue Plan.
You can then apply on Healthcare.gov; if your state uses its own separate exchange, the site will direct you to this option, away from the Obamacare hub. Once you understand what types of tax credits you are entitled to, you can consider the different levels of health insurance available to you, at what prices.
How the stimulus bill affects health insurance
Be aware that while you can currently get insurance at a lower cost, price updates take time after the stimulus package is adopted. If you did qualify, you will receive a refund, and if you wait days or weeks to verify your options, you will be able to see fully updated prices in the market.
Basically, the stimulus bill shifts the equation even further in favor of health coverage for millions of Americans. Someone who couldn’t even afford a subsidized premium of $ 100 per month, for example, may now be eligible for a plan with a monthly premium of $ 0. However, a difference of $ 85 less per month on a premium could also tip the balance for middle-income families who previously tried to live without insurance.
The recovery plan also changes the calculation of health insurance for people already insured.
“Insured people will seek more care that is needed, rather than avoiding care because of cost,” says Tara Straw, senior research analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “People often make business decisions based on benefits, and for example, if people can get affordable health care, it allows them to start or grow their small businesses. They have another source of health care than staying in a job that provides them. “
Alternatives to Obamacare and COBRA
If you stick with COBRA coverage from previous employment, be aware that your full US bailout premium payments end on September 30. If you are not planning on getting a job with health care benefits on this date, you may want to register with Obamacare, and be aware that the special registration period for it ends on May 15th. If you would prefer to subscribe to an ACA plan, be sure to apply at this time or be prepared for what you will do between the time COBRA coverage ends and the start of the next open enrollment period in November.
Medicaid and CHIP – the latter providing low-cost options for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid – are a viable alternative to either of the above options.
Neither has a registration period; you can apply and be approved at any time. If your state is among those that have approved the extension of Medicaid availability, you may be eligible for a Medicaid plan even if you have never signed up before.
Medicaid coverage varies by state. In the coming months, some states that had not previously adopted the ACA’s optional Medicaid extension element may consider expanding their Medicaid coverage due to funds allocated in the US bailout.
Whether you’re recently unemployed, have been unemployed for much of the pandemic, or have a job that doesn’t provide health insurance, the American Rescue Plan gives you options you didn’t have. previously to purchase health insurance. This also applies to self-employed Americans.
Whether you are considering signing up for an Affordable Care Market plan or extending a previous plan on COBRA, now is the time to act. You have until May 15 to apply for Obamacare, and you may find it more affordable than you think, thanks to new grants.