With the pandemic still threatening the country’s health and economy, now is certainly the time to assure as much access to affordable health care as possible. Unemployment stubbornly remains at record levels, and too many have lost employer-provided insurance and risk incurring health care costs that might prove crippling. Recognizing this, the Biden administration has taken an important step to make health insurance more accessible, and anyone lacking insurance should look into the available options.
In normal times, the open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act for purchasing health insurance through a marketplace — for New Hampshire residents, it’s through the federal healthcare.gov exchange — ends in December of the preceding year. The Trump administration, stymied in its efforts to push a total repeal of the ACA through Congress, engaged in an effort to limit the appeal and accessibility of insurance under the act. Among steps it took were to shorten the enrollment period, cut back the budget for publicizing its availability and slash the budget for health insurance “navigators” to assist in the enrollment process. Despite these efforts, insurance through the marketplaces has continued to show appeal. In New Hampshire, for example, Covering New Hampshire, a statewide initiative to bolster enrollment through the federal exchange, estimated that sign-ups for 2021 during the truncated open enrollment period late last year increased nearly 5 percent from the preceding year, the Concord Monitor reported.
Despite the ACA’s resiliency, though, the Kaiser Family Foundation recently estimated that close to 15 million Americans eligible to buy insurance through a marketplace remain uninsured. Of them, well over half — almost 9 million — qualify for full or partial federal subsidies to bring the cost of their health insurance down, the nonprofit health organization reported.
Recognizing this and the ongoing uncertainties facing families during this decidedly not normal time, President Biden issued an executive order on Jan. 28 to reopen the federal marketplace for a three-month period to purchase 2021 insurance. As a result, New Hampshire recently announced its special enrollment period would run from Feb. 15 to May 15. “With this opportunity, NH residents who are uninsured will be able to sign up for coverage without waiting until the next regular open enrollment period at the end of the year,” N.H. Insurance Commissioner Chris Nicolopoulos stated in a news release. Making the additional enrollment window more appealing to state residents, he said, is that a special waiver the state obtained from the federal government means premiums available through the exchange are lower than in the past.
Though the three-month special enrollment period is about twice the window available last year under Trump administration rules, those without health insurance should not delay in investigating the options and the availability of federal assistance to reduce the cost, particularly as there are many coverage choices and investigating them can be complicated.
Anyone can enroll through the www.healthcare.gov portal, but help in navigating choices and the enrollment process is available. Information about contacting enrollment assisters to help with the process, which in this region include Cheshire Medical Center (available to its patients and non-patients alike) and certified insurance brokers, can be found at www.healthcare.gov/find-assistance. Also, First Choice Services, a free, nonprofit program available to all state residents, offers assistance at https://acanavigator.com/nh/home or by calling 1-877-211-NAVI. And Covering New Hampshire has made extensive information and contacts available through its website at https://coveringnewhampshire.org.
It’s a smart move by the president to open up the special enrollment period. Encouraging greater enrollment will not only benefit those signing up but will also help reduce cost pressures on the nation’s health care system during a particularly vulnerable period.