You can get health insurance for little or no cost amid coronavirus layoffs—here’s how.
Laura Worcester,May 28, 2020 • 3 min read
At the beginning of March, less than 200,000 people filed for unemployment benefits in the US. As of last week, that number jumped to nearly 38.6 million.
If you're one of the millions of Americans who have lost their job and employer-based health insurance—or if you didn't have health insurance and are rethinking that decision—you may have several options for finding coverage now. Here are four public and private health insurance options to consider.
1. Check to See If You Qualify for Medicaid
Depending on your income and state, you may qualify for Medicaid, the national health insurance program for low-income individuals and families that's jointly funded by federal and state governments. Medicaid enrollment takes place year-round and is based on monthly income, not annual income, and it's essentially free for people who are eligible. You're more likely to qualify if you live in one of the 37 states and D.C. that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that nearly 6 million adults right now qualify for Medicaid but aren't enrolled.
2. Shop for a Marketplace Plan
Losing health insurance that you got through your job is considered a "qualifying event" to enroll in a plan on all the health insurance exchanges (or “Marketplaces”) created by the Affordable Care Act. That means you can go to Healthcare.gov or your state-run exchange and shop for a new plan. Depending on the number of people in your family and your income for the year, you may be eligible for a subsidy (or government aid) to help cover your premiums. The Kaiser Family Foundation has a helpful calculator so you can see what you might pay for these plans (remember that your unemployment benefits count as income on the exchanges). If you’ve lost your job, most people have only 60 days to sign up for policies through a special enrollment period once their employer-sponsored coverage ends.
Even if you were laid off from a job where your employer didn’t provide health coverage, you may still be able to get health coverage through a Marketplace plan. Some states—including California and New York—are changing enrollment rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning you don't need to have a "qualifying event" like job-based coverage loss or the birth of a child to newly enroll right now in a marketplace plan.
3. Join Your Spouse or Family’s Plan
If you’re under 26, you may be able to get insurance through your family's health coverage. If you’re married and your spouse has job-based health insurance, find out if you can get added to his or her plan.
4. Continue Your Job-Based Coverage through COBRA
If your employer offers COBRA coverage (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), you can extend your job-based health coverage for up to 18 months after your job ends. Typically, employers with at least 20 or more workers are required by law to offer COBRA coverage. While this is one of the easiest options, it is generally the most expensive because you’ll pay the full cost of your monthly premium, in addition to an administrative fee. For more information about the special time frame to elect COBRA coverage, see the Department of Labor's COVID-19 FAQs for Participants and Beneficiaries.
Once I’m Insured, What’s Included?
Most insurance plans will cover a set of preventive services at no cost to you. Hospital, emergency care, and prescription drugs are considered essential benefits and must be covered, but you may still have to meet an annual deductible and pay things like copays and coinsurance on top of that. When comparing plans, be sure to look at each insurance plan's drug formulary to find out if any medications you're taking are covered, and how much of the cost you'll have to absorb. If your medication price goes up, check with your doctor to see if you can switch to a more affordable generic and look for discounts with Blink Health.
Since the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18, most people should not face costs for the COVID-19 test or associated costs (such as doctor visits). There has not yet been comprehensive federal legislation to limit cost-sharing for treatment of COVID-19, such as hospitalization for those who become very ill. Some large commercial insurers have pledged to waive patient costs for COVID-19 treatment, but if you do get a surprise bill (for COVID-19 or any other kind of illness), call your hospital or doctor and/or insurance company and try to negotiate a lower bill. You can also check with the doctor or hospital to see if they offer a payment plan, or can forgive the debt, as a part of a charity care program.