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Enrollment Open for Virginians Seeking Health Coverage

Emergency room enterance
Over 21,000 Virginians have been hospitalized for COVID-19, something that can quickly become expensive without insurance. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginians seeking health insurance through the Affordable Care Act have until December 15 to evaluate their options and select a plan.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the actions taken to control its spread forced the economy into recession, causing 3.3 million Americans to lose their employee sponsored insurance, according to the Urban Institute. This at a time when health insurance is more important than ever.

“For most people who need a COVID test or screening, that will be free of charge,” said Jill Hanken, the director of Enroll Virginia. “The problem comes for people who need treatment for COVID. Once you are in a hospital, the bill starts racking up.”

Carolyn Engelhard, a professor of health policy at the University of Virginia, said that nearly 80% of those who lost insurance during the pandemic are eligible for coverage under either the ACA or Medicaid. Despite this, 90,000 Virginians became uninsured since March, bringing the state’s total up to 733,000, according to the nonprofit Families USA.

She said the peak for coverage under the ACA was in 2016, but since then Trump administration policies have undermined the efforts to get people insured.

“They’ve got these dueling, kind of contradictory, actions,” Engelhard said. “Where here you’re supporting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court, and you’re opening up the exchanges for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. It’s kind of like crazy making.” 

She said the administration has slashed the budget used to promote ACA enrollment, inform people of their options and provide guidance when selecting policies. 

Enroll Virginia, the organization Hanken directs, is tasked with helping Virginians navigate the insurance marketplace. 

“Our whole purpose is to help Virginians make decisions about their health insurance options,” she said. “We provide education, outreach and also one-on-one application assistance to help people get the health insurance that they need.”

She hopes uninsured Virginians will use the open enrollment period to get coverage, but noted that people who lose employee sponsored insurance are eligible for a special enrollment period after being laid off.

The future of President Barack Obama’s signature law may be in jeopardy, however, as the Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments November 10 in a case backed by 18 states and the Trump administration seeking to overturn the ACA. This is the third time the law has stood before the court, and Hanken said the complicated legal fighting around it leads to uncertainty around it.

“What we hear from consumers very often is a lot of confusion about whether or not the ACA even still exists,” she said. “So we are assuring people that as we speak today, the ACA is the law of the land.”

Both Hanken and Engelhard doubted the suit currently before the court would result in the law being struck down, but noted that if it were overturned, people’s insurance plans for 2021 would likely remain in place.

“An insurance plan is essentially a contract,” Engelhard said. “If it did happen, I do think that it would go into effect January 1, 2022.

“But, make no mistake, it would be cataclysmic in our healthcare system for that to happen. Because 21 million people would lose health insurance,” she said.

Those looking for health insurance during the open enrollment period can explore their options at healthcare.gov. People who’d like assistance navigating the marketplace can call Enroll Virginia at 1-888-392-5132 or visit www.enrollva.org/get-help.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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