Millions of Americans lost their health care over the course of the past year as a result of job loss amid the recent economic downturn. That left lots of people in a vulnerable position because the difficulties were spurred by a global pandemic that could lead to high health care costs if affected workers or their families were to come down with COVID-19.
As such, the federal government opened its Healthcare.gov insurance exchanges for a special enrollment period and, so far, it has been a huge success for all involved. The marketplace reopened for affected Americans in mid-February and, according to data from the administration of President Joe Biden, more than 1 million Americans signed up for coverage through the site in less than three months.
"That's 1 million more Americans who now have the peace of mind that comes from having health insurance. One million more Americans who don't have to lie awake at night worrying about what happens if they or one of their family members gets sick," the White House said in announcing the milestone. "Through this opportunity for special enrollment, we have made enormous progress in expanding access to health insurance."
Moreover, the special enrollment period was originally supposed to end on May 15, but will now remain open through Aug. 15. This means anyone who continues experiencing economic difficulties and financial distress for any reason between now and then can ensure they have access to health insurance. And, because the recently passed American Rescue Plan also reduced costs for coverage on the exchanges, it's increasingly affordable; from the start of April to mid-May, the median deductible on coverage purchased through Healthcare.gov dropped to $50, a decline of almost 90%.
A big boost for insurers
This comes at a time when many health insurers may not have had a lot of certainty about the future; with millions of Americans losing their coverage due to job losses, there was increased precarity all around. However, Forbes senior contributor Bruce Jaspen, an expert on health care, notes that many in the industry are now reassured by the emergency enrollment period. As first-quarter financial data from health insurers large and small became public in recent weeks, it was apparent that people were largely taking advantage of the twin benefits from expanded enrollment periods and improved subsidies to reduce costs.
"We think marketplace will continue to be a growth engine," Michael Neidorff, chief executive officer of Centene, which insures more Americans through federal and state exchanges than any other coverage provider, recently said in discussing first-quarter numbers. "[S]ince the beginning of the year, we have enrolled over 320,000 new members in our marketplace product."
That number nearly doubled the company's ACA enrollment, and Neidorff said it now anticipates even more growth because the Biden administration is investing in exchange infrastructure once again.
Coverage where people need it
Early data from the special enrollment period suggests that this extra time to sign up, in conjunction with the savings offered through the ARP's benefits, have been a boon to many Americans who previously went without coverage. As The New York Times noted in early April, there had been increases in enrollment among people who were earning only slightly more than the federal poverty level, and minorities were making up larger percentages of sign-ups as well.
Previously, people had opportunities to sign up through the exchanges outside the normal open enrollment period only if they met certain criteria (including job loss) but the new effort being more broad-based seems to have created conditions that led to a two-fold increase in sign-ups over the same months in 2019 and 2020. Indeed, about 60% of people who don't have insurance (more than 6 million in all) will now qualify for coverage that will not require them to pay for premiums — and another estimated 1.3 million will get increased premium assistance.
A temporary fix
It's worth noting, however, that much like the expanded enrollment period, these boosted benefits won't last forever. Many are poised to expire within the next year or two, but CNBC reports that many within the health care industry believe the current circumstances will provide significant relief nonetheless. Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the network that there is a feeling that these changes will begin to address some of the lingering problems of the Affordable Care Act, largely because some people have been priced out by rising premiums in recent years.
With this in mind, it's vital for insurers to be in regular communication with policyholders so they can remain fully aware of what's going on with their coverage and what may happen next as time goes on. This not only helps them make the most informed decisions about their insurance, but also helps lead to better relationships with policyholders going forward.