Last week, another 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, bringing the current total of coronavirus-related unemployment claims to 17 million. That is 11 percent of the U.S. labor force. What makes this burst of job losses different from any other economic crisis in history is how quickly they happened, as businesses have had to shutter with little notice. The government is working on economic relief efforts, including stimulus checks and loans and bailouts for businesses.
One complication for many people is that it’s not just their income they lose when they lose their jobs — nearly half of Americans receive health insurance and benefits through their employer. According to an estimate from Health Management Associates, between 12 million and 35 millions Americans could lose their employer-sponsored insurance if layoffs continue as they are predicted to. So what does this mean for health insurance?
Many people who lost employment are now eligible for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Medicaid. However, the ACA only helps people who recently lost employer-based insurance benefits (losing insurance related to a layoff is considered “a qualifying event”); people who are unemployed due to coronavirus layoffs but did not receive insurance through their jobs aren’t eligible to sign up for coverage at healthcare.gov.
Medicaid is jointly funded by state and federal governments and enrollment takes place year-round, and is based on monthly income, so it’s worth checking to see if you qualify. Eligibility varies by state, but the Kaiser foundation estimates that nearly 6 million adults right now qualify for Medicaid but aren't enrolled.
Unfortunately, even though we are in a national state of emergency, the Trump administration has so far not waived any of the red tape required to sign up for the ACA. Not only that, despite making exceptions for natural disasters in the past, the administration hasn’t created a new open enrollment period and re-opened the ACA marketplaces to new customers.
“I would do almost everything different from what's being done right now,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran the Medicaid, Medicare and ACA exchanges during part of the Obama administration, told The Hill.
Another option people who lost jobs through their employers might have is COBRA. This is only if you worked for a company with 20 or more employees, however. Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NPR that one of the benefits of COBRA is "it provides the most continuity of coverage, because you stay in exactly the same plan you were in when you were employed — same network of doctors and hospitals, same deductible — everything is identical."
A downside, however, is that it can be really expensive and without an employer to pay part of it, you’re responsible for the entire premium — with your diminished income. If you qualify for COBRA, your employer has to tell you and you have 60 days to sign up.If you don’t currently have insurance and you don’t qualify for Medicaid, it’s worth checking out whether your state has created a special enrollment period. Even though the federal government has not, some states have, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, D.C. This means you don’t need that “qualifying event” to enroll.