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Unemployed or furloughed in 2021? You could get free health insurance through the federal marketplace - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Anyone who received unemployment in 2021 could qualify for cheaper or no-cost health insurance through the federally run marketplace, starting this month.

Since July 1, people can find lower-cost plans that save them money on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles and co-pays, if they are receiving or already received unemployment compensation at any point this year. That includes plans with $0 monthly premiums, regardless of yearly income.

The savings are part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill President Joe Biden signed into law in March. Other provisions of the law having to do with the marketplace took effect earlier this year. They increased subsidies to people already eligible through state and federal marketplaces and made subsidies available to more middle-income and upper-income households.

"Now is the best time ever to save on health insurance for anyone ... who has been receiving unemployment compensation at any point this year," said Cheryl Isabell, outreach and enrollment specialist at Milwaukee Health Services. "Even if they already have a marketplace plan, now is the time for them to re-enroll to get the additional savings."

Adam VanSpankeren, navigator program manager at Covering Wisconsin, which connects people with health insurance coverage, said under the changes, people could save hundreds of dollars a month.

"If you've received unemployment at all, you absolutely want to go in and update your application because it could be a big difference," he said. "It's a significant savings."

Who is eligible

Most anyone who received or is approved to receive unemployment benefits at any point in 2021. Even if you only received unemployment for a week, you may qualify for $0 monthly plans and other savings.

There is no income limit to qualify for these savings.

If you already have health coverage through your employer, you generally cannot qualify for savings through the marketplace.

Tina Chang, revenue cycle director at Progressive Community Health Centers, which helps clients enroll in health insurance plans, encouraged anyone who is unsure to apply anyway.

"I tell everyone to apply. The worst that can happen is you get denied," she said. "It doesn't hurt to apply."

How to sign up

Go to HealthCare.gov, the insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. If you already have a marketplace plan, log in and select "report a life change." Then update your application in order to take advantage of the savings.

If you do not already have a marketplace plan, go to HealthCare.gov, create an account and go through the application process.

You can also call HealthCare.gov at 1-800-318-2596 to apply or update your application over the phone. The call center is open 24/7, except holidays.

Where to get help

You can call 211 and ask for help to be connected with local health insurance experts.

Experts called navigators help people sign up for health insurance and find the best plans that fit their needs.

Covering Wisconsin, a program based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has navigators on staff to help people through the process. Their services are free. People wanting help can call 608-261-1455 or 414-400-9489 to set up an appointment.

A range of other organizations also have people who offer help — often for free — with enrolling in health coverage. That includes community health centers, such as:

  • Milwaukee Health Services, 414-372-8080
  • Outreach Community Health Centers at 414-727-6320
  • Progressive Community Health Centers at 414-935-8000
  • Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, 414-897-5534

"There's many, many different resources out there to help them. They don't have to navigate this process (alone) through the HealthCare.gov website because it can be complicated and kind of confusing for folks," said Isabell, of Milwaukee Health Services.

Find more organizations that can help and their contact information at coveringwi.org/enroll.

When you need to sign up

The current special enrollment period during which anyone can enroll in, update or change their marketplace plan closes on Aug. 15.

What you'll need to sign up

You do not necessarily need to provide proof of unemployment to take advantage of the savings, VanSpankeren said. However, it helps to have proof handy in case you need to submit verification.

For people already enrolled in a marketplace health plan, the process could be as simple as resubmitting your application to receive the savings. If you already listed unemployment income, you will automatically receive the savings when you resubmit, said Chang, of Progressive Community Health Centers. 

Those enrolling in a marketplace plan for the first time and working with a navigator or other helper may be asked to bring proof of current income and other documents, such as a picture ID or your most-recent tax returns.

Ask what you should bring to an appointment if you are working with a navigator or other helper.

However, VanSpankeren stressed that missing documents should not stop people from trying.

"You could come to a navigator with virtually nothing, and we can figure it out. We can help you," he said.

Covering Wisconsin is holding most appointments remotely, he said, meaning clients could locate any necessary documents while talking to a navigator from home.

Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.

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