- President Joe Biden has announced he is reopening the Affordable Care Act marketplace to help people who have lost health insurance during the COVID-19 economic downturn.
- The new enrollment period will run from Feb. 15 to May 15.
- Experts say people should go to the official ACA website and not an individual insurer’s website.
- They also urge consumers not to necessarily choose the cheapest option, because limited coverage options could actually make your healthcare costs higher.
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White House officials say more than 30 million Americans have no health insurance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many are in communities of color that have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
In addition, some 900,000 workers filed for unemployment in just 1 week last month, compared to 282,000 that same week last year.
Once they lose their jobs, many people may also lose their health insurance.
Acting on a campaign promise, President Joe Biden is taking a first step to shore up and rehab the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare.
Last week, the president signed an executive order that would allow millions of the “uninsured and the underinsured” another chance to get health insurance through the federal marketplace.
“I think it’s extremely important, given that the amount of suffering during this pandemic is unreal,” said Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives for Families USA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer health advocacy organization.
“This is basically signaling that we need to do everything we can to provide people the opportunity to have adequate health insurance coverage in this once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis,” added Gerald Kominski, PhD, a professor of health policy and management at UCLA.
“That’s a good thing in the midst of a pandemic that currently has thousands of people hospitalized unexpectedly and approximately 3,000 people a day dying,” Kominski told Healthline. “And we’re far enough into this to know that people are not fully recovering.”
The order sets up a special enrollment period that will run for 3 months from Feb. 15 through May 15.
It’s in effect for the 36 states that participate in the ACA marketplace.
“People have been able to apply for special enrollment already if they lost their jobs during the pandemic, but this enrollment is broader,” Parcham told Healthline. “You don’t have to call the call center to get in. You don’t have to prove that you lost a job since January 2020.”
Biden also asked federal health officials to do away with barriers that make it more difficult for people who qualify for Medicaid.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is scheduled to spend $50 million on marketing, public information, and support for the new sign-up period.
During the past 4 years, former President Donald Trump vowed to repeal and replace the ACA.
Experts say his administration shortened the enrollment period and cut funding for public awareness and support services, such as navigators and consumer assistants.
Those moves, they said, made enrolling a lot more difficult.
“We are aware that the outreach and enrollment funding and support had been really reduced in recent years,” Jane Sung, JD, senior strategic policy adviser of AARP’s Public Policy Institute, told Healthline.
“My understanding is it was really hard to get an appointment with a navigator if you didn’t start early because resources were so limited,” she said.
At the signing ceremony, Biden said the executive order was a way to “undo the damage Trump has done.”
He said the former president had made the ACA “more inaccessible, more expensive, and more difficult for people to qualify for.”
First, experts say make sure you’re on the right website, which is Healthcare.gov.
“You don’t want to just Google ‘healthcare.com’ on the internet or ‘Obamacare plans’ or ‘Bidencare plans,’” Parcham explained.
“If you do, you’re likely to get to a site that might look like it’s the federal marketplace but is actually selling you plans that don’t comply with marketplace rules. And they don’t provide as many benefits or protect people with preexisting conditions,” she said.
Be aware that it can be daunting. You can click on a link to get local help on the ACA website.
“Shopping for insurance is not for the faint of heart, but there are lots of people out here to help you,” said Elisabeth Ryden Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives for the Community Service Society of New York. Her agency runs the largest navigator program in that city.
“Find a navigator. They are certified, they provide independent, unbiased enrollment and counseling services. They do not work for the health insurance companies,” Benjamin told Healthline.
Experts also advise that you steer clear of short-term, low-cost plans that were approved during the Trump administration and aren’t listed on the ACA site.
“Make sure you’re looking for plans that have all the protections of the ACA, things like preexisting conditions,” Sung said. “Be aware that there are these short-term plans that aren’t going to have all the protections that have been afforded by the ACA.”
“Check to see if the plan will let you keep the doctors you have, and know what your copay and deductible are,” Parcham added.
“Make sure you click the button that says you want to apply for financial aid. Even though you think you may not be eligible, you might be,” Benjamin advised.
Price isn’t always the number one consideration either.
“Sometimes paying a lower premium isn’t the best way to go about selecting a plan,” said Elizabeth Conty, field manager of the southern Maryland office of Seedco, which provides healthcare navigation services.
“Do an assessment of how many prescriptions you take. How often do you visit the doctor? How often do you visit a specialist? Do you need special treatments?” Conty told Healthline.
“Sometimes paying a little bit more for the monthly premium over the course of the year, you wind up saving,” she explained.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have their own marketplaces offering ACA-compliant coverage.
If you go to Healthcare.gov and put in the state where you live, it will link you to your state plan.
Some of them already have a special enrollment period or may mirror what the federal plan is offering.
Launching the special sign-up period is likely just a first step for Biden, who has said he wants to build on and expand the ACA.
But that will require congressional approval.
There has been opposition from the other side of the political aisle for years.
“Despite efforts by the Trump administration to undermine the law, enrollment has remained pretty constant,” Kominski said.
“I think President Biden wants to double down on the ACA and enhance it. I don’t think there is a lot that needs to be done. There are things that need to be done to unravel the Trump administration’s shenanigans,” he explained. “It needs more subsidies, more people eligible, to lower the requirement before you become eligible for a subsidy.”
But Republicans have one more legal challenge to the ACA currently before the Supreme Court.
The justices heard the case in November and are expected to respond to it later this year.
Court watchers believe the ACA will survive, based on the arguments presented and the questions the justices asked.