Lost your health insurance in the pandemic? These are your options

Since coronavirus lockdowns began in early March, record numbers of Americans have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs.

In April, the unemployment rate soared to 14.7% — the highest it’s been since the Great Depression — and this summer, more than a million new applications for unemployment benefits are still being filed each week.

To make matters worse, many who have lost their jobs also have lost their employee health benefits amid the largest global health crisis in modern times.

That happened to an estimated 5.4 million U.S. workers between February and May, according to a study by the advocacy group Families USA. That’s far more than the 3.9 million who became uninsured during a full year of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.

If you’ve just lost your employee health insurance, you may be tempted to put off getting a new policy, especially if you’re in good health. But if you or someone in your family needs unexpected medical treatment, your expenses could be enormous.

Here are four options for finding new, affordable health coverage.

Join your spouse’s plan

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If your spouse or partner is still working and has a company health insurance policy, the quickest and easiest option is to join their plan.

Most organizations provide coverage to the spouses and dependents of their employees, and some will offer benefits to domestic partners, too.

Although you typically have to request enrollment within 30 days of losing your own coverage, the government has indefinitely extended the time frame for applying, due to the pandemic.

You now have until 30 days after the government has declared an end to the national outbreak emergency — whenever that comes.

Extend your current coverage through COBRA

Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, you’re entitled to stay on your existing employee health plan for up to 18 months.

This can be a good option if you’re concerned about having to switch health care providers, but it does have a major downside: the cost.

Since your insurance will no longer be subsidized by your employer, you’ll be required to pay full price. If your work has been taking care of 60% to 80% of your premiums, your cost could go up by hundreds of dollars a month.

You usually have just 60 days to sign up for COBRA after losing your employer coverage, but that window has been extended for the pandemic. Similar to the rule on joining a spouse’s plan, the 60-day limit won’t return until after the government announces that the state of emergency has ended.

Just remember that even though staying on your current plan might seem like the easiest option, it may not be the cheapest.

Check whether you’re eligible for Medicaid

You may not think you qualify for Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for low-income Americans, but many states have expanded their Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act — the “Obamacare” law.

Close to half the people who have lost jobs due to the pandemic are eligible for Medicaid under the expanded terms, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

You can check online at HealthCare.gov to find out if your income qualifies you for Medicaid coverage. When tallying up your earnings you’ll need to include any state unemployment benefits you’re getting, but not your stimulus check or the extra $600 a week in emergency federal unemployment you may have received.

If you’re eligible, apply as soon as possible. Medicaid processing usually takes at least 45 days, and you’re likely to wait even longer due to the increased number of applications amid the current crisis.

Buy your own coverage

If you can’t get Medicaid, you may be able to sign up for a subsidized policy under the Affordable Care Act through your state’s health insurance marketplace.

To seek a federal subsidy that’ll cut the cost of a policy, you’ll need to provide documentation from your employer or insurer showing that your previous coverage was canceled when you lost your job.

Even with a subsidy, the coverage can be expensive. A study in the journal Health Affairs found that Obamacare plans are becoming less affordable for many.

So, you might save money by shopping around for a policy outside of your state’s marketplace, and comparing rates from different insurance companies.

Free services are available online that will let you compare quotes and coverage from multiple insurers. In just minutes, you can find a plan that fits your needs — and at the best rate that’s out there.

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