The Carrot and the Stick: Learning from Tax Season to Get More Americans Covered

As Americans rush to file their taxes before the annual April 15 deadline, we at Enroll America are busy making sure some of them are aware of another upcoming due date. Through April 30, some uninsured consumers are still eligible to enroll in health insurance thanks to a unique tax-filing Special Enrollment Period (SEP). Not only is this moment a great chance for us to get more people covered now, it’s also a valuable opportunity to get a better understanding of how the fine can help motivate consumers to enroll in coverage in the years to come.

In a past column, I talked about how we hoped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would consider creating an SEP for consumers who missed the message about signing up for coverage and were fined on their taxes. Now, as we approach the end of this new tax-filing SEP that HHS created, we’re ramping up efforts to make sure eligible consumers understand they can still get covered. We’re also carefully tracking and analyzing our data to see how consumers respond when they find out about the fine, what information they need to navigate their taxes and the enrollment process, and which outreach tactics are most effective for reaching consumers affected by this SEP. This tax-filing season offers a golden opportunity to learn more about how consumers handle the intersection of health coverage and the tax filing process and to share that information with the enrollment coalition.

Because this SEP is limited to consumers who meet very specific criteria, we’re taking a narrower, more targeted approach to outreach than we did during the open enrollment period, when a much larger pool of consumers could sign up. Using tools like our cutting-edge data targeting model, we can pinpoint consumers who are likely to qualify, and our team of staff and volunteers have called thousands of them directly to make sure they know about this opportunity and connect them with enrollment assistance.

We’re also leveraging our strong partnerships, particularly with free and low-cost tax-preparers, to spread the word and engage eligible consumers. By working in tandem with enrollment assisters and tax preparers, we’re identifying consumers who are eligible for the tax filing SEP and connecting them with free enrollment assistance in their community. We’re working with more than 100 partners who are focused on tax-filing season, and our partnerships with VITA sites that provide free tax assistance to low-income Americans are especially important in finding and following up with people who are eligible to enroll. And our Get Covered Connector tool is still available to help consumers schedule free appointments with a local enrollment expert, and nearly 5,000 appointments have been scheduled since the tax-filing SEP began in March.

We know from last year that there’s value in conducting year-round outreach, but engaging consumers who are eligible for an SEP is still a challenge. Because most SEPs offer only a relatively short window for enrollment, there’s less time for sustained follow up (which has proved critical to seeing a consumer through the enrollment process), and the pool of consumers who qualify is much smaller. But the tax-filing SEP differs from other SEPs in that it has a universal end date of April 30 – and we know from our research that consumers are motivated by deadlines. Consumers meeting the requirements for the SEP have until April 30 to get covered for the year and avoid another full fine on their taxes next year. After that, the fine increases significantly to $325 per person or 2 percent of household income above the tax filing threshold.

While the total number of people who enroll during the tax filing SEP remains to be seen, this tax season is a valuable opportunity for us to learn how the tax implications of the law are motivating consumers. We already know from our research and hundreds of thousands of direct conversations that consumers really want coverage (the carrot) and are excited to find out that financial help is available to help them afford a plan. The information we gather during this special enrollment period will go a long way towards telling us how best to include factual information about the fine (the stick) in that message as well. We’re taking close notes and are excited to glean insights to share with our partners so the enrollment coalition can best utilize the tax filing moment for enrollment gains in the future.


Anne Filipic is the president of Enroll America. 

Morning Consult