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Following passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there is now a window of time each year called the open enrollment period when people can sign up for health insurance or change their coverage. Open enrollment typically happens in the fall. There are also certain life events, like losing a job or getting married, that can qualify people for special enrollment periods at any time of the year. The government is able to create additional special enrollment periods as well.
Last spring, in the early stages of a public health emergency that brought with it economic and employment uncertainty for families across America, it made a whole lot of sense to make it easier for people to access health insurance coverage by creating a special enrollment period during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the states that run their own exchanges took this approach, but perplexingly, the federal government did not.
That meant the roughly 30 states, Maine included, using the federally-facilitated ACA marketplace at the time were reliant on federal action (Maine has now transitioned toward a state-based marketplace).
After a change in administrations, President Joe Biden quickly and appropriately created a federal special enrollment period that began in February because of the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency. Early results speak for themselves. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, more than 200,000 people signed up on HealthCare.gov during the first two weeks of that enrollment period. That is nearly triple the amount of signups in the same period last year when there was no special enrollment period, and when only people with qualifying life events could access the federal exchange.
The demand to sign up for health insurance or change an existing plan has clearly been high. The special enrollment period provides additional flexibility and clarity for the millions of Americans who remain uninsured, and those who would like to explore other coverage options.
Biden has since extended that special enrollment period through Aug. 15, and the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law earlier this month also provides additional ACA subsidies that can help reduce or eliminate insurance premiums for some Americans. The expanded financial assistance begins on April 1, and is slated to last for two years.
State officials are now encouraging Mainers to take advantage of the special enrollment period and the potential for additional subsidies.
“Being able to visit your doctor, to fill a prescription, and to receive the health care you need to stay healthy is even more important amid this pandemic,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a March 24 press release. “Affordable health insurance is available for Maine people, and I encourage anyone who needs it to visit CoverME.gov to explore their options and to sign up for a plan by August 15. Don’t miss this opportunity to protect your health and the health of your loved ones.”
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew also stressed that Maine people take advantage of this extra time to explore their health coverage options.
“Even if you already have a health plan, you’re likely to qualify for better coverage at a lower cost to you and your family if you take action,” Lambrew said.
This special enrollment period and additional financial assistance don’t suddenly solve America’s many health care challenges. But they do at least provide some additional time, flexibility and the potential of better health coverage at a lower price.
So any uninsured Mainers should explore their options through the ACA marketplace. They now have through Aug. 15 to do so, regardless of whether they’ve experienced a qualifying life event or not. And if someone is already insured through the marketplace, they have time to take a second look and see if they qualify for the new subsidies or have better coverage options.