(by Andres Rojas)

On January 28, President Joe Biden announced a special open enrollment period going from February 15 to May 15. During these three months, uninsured individuals and families can register themselves on the federal marketplace. 

This measure comes at a critical time. Although the vaccines started rolling out in December of last year, the number of cases is still extremely high.

To make matters worse, millions of citizens have lost their job-based health insurance. A further 11 million Americans could lose their unemployment benefits in the coming weeks. 

Fortunately, though, the reopening of the federal health marketplace will help protect American workers while we recover from the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.

Almost 30 Million Uninsured Americans Can Sign Up for Medical Care

According to a recent report, more than 30 million non-elderly Americans have no health insurance. However, the actual number could be higher as COVID-19 has left many workers without their job-based insurance.

Although the unemployment rate has halved since April of last year, at 6.7% it’s still twice that of February 2020. Reopening the marketplace now means that workers who changed jobs got furloughed, or were laid off have a new deadline to buy health insurance.

Under normal conditions, only eligible people – like those who got married or lost employment-based insurance – can qualify for a special enrollment period. However, this special enrollment period is open to any citizen who could normally buy coverage in the federal exchange. 

Uninsured citizens can enroll in a new plan regardless of how long they’ve gone without insurance or whether they have the documentation to prove that they lost job-based coverage.

This Special Enrollment Period Widens the Window of Opportunity for Everybody

Though many people complain about Medicare’s short open enrollment period, it’s also what makes the system so robust. By limiting enrollment to a few weeks of the year, the program encourages healthy people to sign up for health insurance even if they don’t need it right away.

Unfortunately, this lack of flexibility also means millions of people repeatedly miss their chance of signing up for health insurance. 

Although losing job-based healthcare is a qualifying life event, for most people finding a job takes priority over buying healthcare. Sadly, 60 days isn’t enough to do either. Furthermore, the rising costs of marketplace healthcare mean that many self-employed and underemployed workers can’t afford the costs.

Hopefully, the new administration’s pro-healthcare stance might bring good news for these workers in the following months.

Good News for COBRA Participants as Well

According to recent data, 49% of Americans (156,199,800) have employer-sponsored health insurance. However, the pandemic has made many unemployed workers dependent on their expensive COBRA benefits.

Although employers cover most of the costs of a group health plan – an average of 82% for individuals and 71% for families – COBRA participants must pay all the costs and an additional 2% fee out of their own pockets.

Fortunately, though, the special enrollment period also gives unemployed workers on COBRA benefits a chance to sign-up for a cheaper alternative.

Not only do marketplace plans cost less than COBRA, but most people usually qualify for government subsidies that they can use to cover their premiums. So while marketplace plans aren’t necessarily cheap, they are a much less expensive alternative to staying on COBRA benefits.

HR Plays a Critical Role in Spreading Awareness

While the re-opening of the marketplace is good news for everybody, not everyone can hear it. According to a study by MetLife, some 3 out of 10 Americans don’t know what the open enrollment period is. 

Indeed, many workers aren’t aware of the special enrollment period’s deadlines. To make matters worse, the dates and length of the period can vary for people who live in states that operate their own exchanges – like Idaho, for example, where the window of opportunity will only last one month (March 1-31).

Although Biden has launched a $50 million advertising campaign to spread awareness, HR managers are the ones best positioned to educate their employees about the special enrollment period. 

Signing up in the marketplace is complex. But with HR, your staff can understand whether they are eligible for a subsidy.

So, let’s all do our best to make this special enrollment period a success!

 

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