Obamacare sign-ups increase during special enrollment period for COVID-19

WASHINGTON – More than 206,000 Americans signed up for health insurance through the federally run HealthCare.gov in the first two weeks of the three-month special enrollment period created by President Joe Biden, the administration announced Wednesday.

That compares with about 76,000 who enrolled during the same period last year, when people could only pick a plan if they had a special circumstance, such as a job loss.

But it's still a small fraction of those who lack insurance coverage.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research organization, estimates there are 9 million uninsured Americans who could get free or subsidized health care through the insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

The administration has declined to estimate how many people will become covered before the enrollment period ends on May 15. Shortly after taking office, Biden directed the Department of Health and Human Services to reopen enrollment, giving a new coverage opportunity to Americans who lost their jobs and employer-based insurance during the pandemic.

Biden, in a statement, called the initial enrollment numbers "an encouraging sign."

"But we can’t slow down until every American has the security and peace of mind that quality, affordable health coverage provides," he said.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 28:  A. Michael Khoury stands outside of his Leading Insurance Agency, which offers plans under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) on January 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to reopen the Affordable Care Act’s federal insurance marketplaces from February 15 to May 15. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775616570 ORIG FILE ID: 1299157647

The enrollment figures are for the 36 states that use the federally run marketplace. States that operate their own are also holding special enrollment periods but the time period and other details vary.

Take-up would likely increase if the pandemic relief package that passed the House and is being considered by the Senate this week becomes law. That bill would temporarily expand the premium subsidies. They would be newly available to people earning more than four times the federal poverty rate. That's about $51,520 for a single person and $106,000 for a family of four.

The bill would also guarantee that people with incomes up to 150% of poverty wouldn’t have to pay any premium for a benchmark midlevel plan, a step up from the higher-deductible plans they can buy with the current subsidies. That could mean the difference between having a $177 deductible instead of a $6,900 deductible plan.

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Critics say the $34.2 billion cost to taxpayers is too big a price tag to cover the 1.3 million people who the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates would no longer be uninsured in 2022 if the bill becomes law.

Advocates and some analysts said that would buy much-needed help when many household budgets are strained.

More than 4 in 10 adults recently surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation said someone in their household lost a job or income since last February due to the pandemic.

About 7 in 10, including 55% of Republicans, support expanding the marketplace subsidies, according to the newly released poll.

The $1.9 trillion relief bill would also create a new financial incentive for the 12 states that have not moved to take the funding created by the ACA to expand Medicaid eligibility, leaving millions of people who are below the poverty line ineligible for government assistance.

In addition to the 206,236 consumers who signed up for private insurance plans between Feb. 15-28, another 54,434 who submitted an application were determined to be eligible for Medicaid.

A lack of awareness about options is one reason the Biden administration gave for reopening enrollment after the regular sign-up period ended in mid-December in most states. Although people who lose employer-provided coverage or have another qualifying event can sign up outside an open enrollment period, many aren't aware that they're eligible for help.

The federal government is spending $50 million on an education campaign that includes broadcast, radio and digital advertising.

More than 3.1 million people accessed the HealthCare.gov website during the first two weeks. The call center received nearly 500,000 calls.

Health care advocacy groups applauded the move to expand coverage as particularly important during the pandemic.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Obamacare sign-ups expand during special COVID-19 enrollment period