March 8, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Last month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that allows the federal health insurance marketplace to open for a special enrollment period between Feb. 15 and May 15. This will allow millions of Americans more time to sign up for health coverage — time a growing number of people desperately need.
It’s no secret the pandemic has left millions unemployed. At the beginning of February, another 793,000 people filed jobless claims. That’s in addition to the 18.3 million Americans receiving jobless aid as of January 2021.
Unfortunately, many workers don’t just lose income when they find themselves jobless — millions also find themselves without health insurance. That’s understandable, considering roughly 55 percent of people get health coverage through their employer. A recent survey from healthinsurance.com found that 41 percent are worried about losing their employer-provided healthcare coverage. About a quarter said they or someone close to them has had this happen during the pandemic. Clearly, workers need a back-up plan.
Established by the Affordable Care Act, the federal health insurance marketplace can be a useful alternative for the almost half of Americans who don’t know what their health insurance options are if they lose their current coverage. One major downside to these plans is that they’re only available during an open enrollment period, the most recent of which ended on Dec. 15.
It’s true that anyone who experiences a “qualifying life event” — including losing health coverage as a result of losing their job — can enroll in a plan outside of this enrollment period. However, many people — especially those impacted by COVID-19 — may not realize this or may not have understood the parameters for enrolling in a new plan. For instance, after losing health coverage, you typically have 60 days to enroll. If you don’t make it in time, you’re back to waiting for the annual open enrollment period, which could be months away.
Additionally, many people may find their current plan doesn’t fit their needs, but they haven’t experienced a qualifying life event that allows them to make changes. Coronavirus caused many to alter their health coverage going into 2021. Sixty-five percent of those who made changes to their insurance added additional coverage. Another 43 percent changed their entire plan altogether. It’s understandable that during such a volatile time, many would want the option to rethink their insurance.
This special open enrollment period between February and May gives more Americans a second chance to access health coverage. People who lost their job over the summer and were too overwhelmed or unaware of how to get coverage now get another try. Those that have coverage but aren’t happy with it, or are concerned they need more, can also make any necessary changes. In fact, 33 percent of people are either taking advantage of the new ACA enrollment period or know someone who is.
But it’s not all blue skies. One main challenge is ensuring Americans in areas hardest hit by COVID-19 are aware of this opportunity, and know their options. The Biden administration plans to launch a $50 million marketing campaign to help with education, but some plan navigators — which help individuals find coverage — are concerned they don’t have enough funding for another open enrollment period.
The next hurdle is affordability. The reality is that ACA plan premiums have only gotten more expensive over the years. In 2020, a family of two or more people could expect to pay over $900 a month in premiums. For individuals, the average cost was $500. While some may qualify for subsidies to help reduce the monthly premiums, there are additional expenses like deductibles. In 2020, plan deductibles averaged over $4,000 a year for individuals, and over $7,000 for a family of four.
It may not be a perfect solution, but there’s little downside in giving Americans more time to sort out their health insurance coverage. It’s a first step from the Biden administration to help the countless Americans who have been struggling to stay afloat over the past year.
Jan Dubauskas is a health care expert, enthusiastic insurance pro, attorney and mom serving as vice president of healthinsurance.com.
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