Q&A: If you lost your job, here’s how to find free health insurance

Dear Liz: I have read that the unemployed can qualify for free health insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. I’m trying to confirm whether my state, which did not accept expanded Medicaid coverage, is offering this to its residents. My position was eliminated with no warning because of the pandemic and I’m finding Healthcare.gov rather convoluted to navigate.

Answer: It may be July before the ACA exchanges reflect the extra tax credits that will make comprehensive health insurance free for anyone who receives unemployment benefits in 2021.

Some of the health insurance changes authorized by the American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed in March, went into effect April 1. Those included providing larger tax credits that lowered costs for most people who buy health insurance on the exchanges and increasing the number of people who qualify for those premium-reducing credits.

In the past, people with incomes above 400% of the poverty line typically didn’t qualify for subsidies that lowered their costs, but now people with incomes up to 600% of the poverty line — up to $76,560 for a single person or $157,200 for a family of four — can qualify, according to medical research organization KFF (formerly Kaiser Family Foundation). The law also created a new special enrollment period that extends through Aug. 15, 2021.

The exchanges have been slower to reflect the increased tax credits for people who receive unemployment benefits at any point during 2021. These credits will effectively allow those who don’t have access to other group coverage to qualify for a free silver plan with a $177 deductible. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has promised that the credits “will be available starting this summer.”

You shouldn’t be without health insurance, so you could sign up for coverage now and update your information when the increased tax credits become available.

But you may have another option. The American Rescue Plan also requires employers to provide free COBRA coverage from April 1 through Sept. 30 to eligible former employees who lost their healthcare coverage because of involuntary termination or a reduction in hours. (Employers will get a federal tax credit to cover their costs.)

Even if you turned down COBRA coverage when you lost your job — as many people do because it’s so expensive — you could still get free coverage if it hasn’t been more than 18 months since you lost your job. Employers are required to notify eligible former employees by May 31. If you haven’t heard from yours by then but think you’re eligible, reach out to the company’s human resources department.

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