Feds Quietly Loosen Restrictions on ACA Enrollment

Nadia Ramlagan | Public News Service
States like Tennessee with narrower Medicaid eligibility are expected to see larger increases in the number of uninsured residents in the coronavirus recession. Photo Credit: JESHOOTS.COM / Unsplash

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The federal government has quietly changed a policy that could make it easier for some residents to sign up for health insurance. Previously, workers had only 60 days after losing their job-based health coverage to sign up for marketplace plans on healthcare.gov.

Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives at Families USA, said now, anyone who lost coverage this year can check to see if they qualify for special enrollment. She added the Trump administration hasn’t given an explanation for the change, but it’s most likely related to the pandemic.

“I think at this point we are, more than anything, just grateful that it has finally opened,” Fish-Parcham said. “Because between February and May, 5.4 million Americans lost their job-based coverage and became uninsured.”

Before the pandemic, some 3.5 million Tennesseans received health insurance from their employer or through a spouse or parent – the largest source of coverage in the state. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as much as one-third of those who have lost job-based insurance could remain uninsured.

Because Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid, Fish-Parcham added, only households with very low incomes are eligible for Medicaid. But, she recommended individuals visit healthcare.gov, where they can check to see if they meet the requirements for a marketplace plan, available to people with modest and higher incomes.

“People who have a disability or who have a child should still click on that, see if you qualify for Medicaid or CHIP,” she said. “You might still qualify for enrollment in the marketplace. So certainly, seeing if you qualify for the special enrollment period is a good thing to check on.”

Research has shown Medicaid expansion would bring health coverage to more than 250,000 Tennesseans, particularly in rural areas.

Fish-Parcham added the pandemic has put a spotlight on the nation’s heavy reliance on employer-sponsored health insurance. She said Black and Hispanic households, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and who are the most likely to have lost income, are bearing the brunt of health care costs.

“Health insurance is important. It helps people afford their bills and get to the doctor,” she said. “And we know that’s important, both in COVID times and also for long-term problems.”

Current lack of access to coverage also could increase household medical debt. A new report shows medical debt affects the credit history of more than one in five Tennesseans, the eighth-highest rate in the country. The report’s authors say ballooning medical debt will likely hamper the state’s economic recovery from COVID-19.