Tue | Oct 19, 2021

Almost 3m Americans get health insurance in COVID-19 sign-up

Published:Thursday | September 16, 2021 | 12:08 AM
US President Joe Biden.
US President Joe Biden.
The HealthCare.gov website is photographed in Washington on Friday, August 13. AP
The HealthCare.gov website is photographed in Washington on Friday, August 13. AP

Nearly 3 million American consumers took advantage of a special six-month period to sign up for subsidised health insurance coverage made more affordable by the COVID-19 relief law, US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday.

He described the number as encouraging and urged Congress to keep the trend going by extending the more generous financial assistance, which is currently scheduled to be available until the end of next year.

“That’s 2.8 million families who will have more security, more breathing room, and more money in their pocket if an illness or accident hits home,” Biden said in a statement.

“Altogether, 12.2 million Americans are actively enrolled in coverage under the Affordable Care Act — an all-time high,” he said.

That’s an increase of about 20 per cent since the end of last year.

Biden had ordered the HealthCare.gov marketplace to reopen on February 15 for six months, through to August 15, to give uninsured people another opportunity to sign up for coverage for themselves and their families during the pandemic. New census numbers show that about 28 million people were uninsured last year, but the steep coverage losses that many feared were averted as about nine in 10 Americans retained private or public coverage.

HealthCare.gov plans became significantly cheaper this April due to enhanced subsidies in the COVID-19 relief law. All the while, coverage through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program has also been growing, reaching more than 82 million people.

The Obama-era Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly called ‘Obamacare’, enacted in 2010, is aimed at increasing health coverage by offering subsidised private insurance nationwide for people who do not get healthcare benefits from their employer. The law also expanded Medicaid for low-income adults, and most states have taken advantage of that option.

Together, the two components cover about 27 million people, according to the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Biden said on Wednesday that the subsidies in his COVID-19 relief law have helped trim premiums by about $67 a month for people who were already enrolled in ACA plans, and that four in 10 new customers during the special sign-up window found coverage for $10 a month or less.

Out-of-pocket expenses have also dropped, he said, with the median, or midpoint, deductible slashed 90 per cent. That makes a difference because it means people pay less when they actually go to use their health insurance at the doctor’s office or the hospital.

“The key takeaway is that when you make coverage affordable, people will buy it,” Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in an interview. There was an upward bump in enrolment in April, when the increased financial aid became available.

“The more people are educated about their options, the more likely they are to enrol in coverage,” said Brooks-LaSure, whose agency runs HealthCare.gov.

Biden, who was vice-president when the heath overhaul became law, wants to move the United States to coverage for all by building on existing programmes.

His $3.5-trillion domestic agenda bill calls for making permanent the richer subsidies for HealthCare.gov plans and provides a workaround to help more than two million low-income, uninsured people denied coverage in a dozen states that have failed to expand Medicaid.

The legislation, which faces uncertain prospects, would also free Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, plowing expected savings back to provide dental, vision and hearing coverage for older people. The bill also calls for a pivot to long-term care services in the home, and an expansion of maternal health coverage for low-income women.

The law survived a decade of Republican efforts to repeal it or get the Supreme Court to strike it down. Obamacare was one of former President Donald Trump’s top targets, but it has now joined Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance as a permanent component of government programmes providing coverage to nearly 145 million people.

The regular annual sign-up season for HealthCare.gov plans is set to start again on November 1. It won’t be the low-key affair that it was in the Trump years, when the government kept the website running smoothly but didn’t do much to promote enrolment. Brooks-LaSure said her agency is planning a big push this fall, with about $80 million allocated among some 1,500 local groups to help consumers enrol.