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The night he lost his job, Merritt said, he went online to sign up for a plan and he was enrolled the next morning.
"I assumed it would be hard. I assumed it wouldn't make sense," he said, but he was pleased it didn't take long.
Details of the special open enrollment period vary. Some states, like Nevada and Maryland, are making coverage available to people without insurance and those with short-term health insurance that does not offer comprehensive benefits. Massachusetts and Washington, on the other hand, allow enrollments only for people who have no coverage.
The response, state officials said, has been positive. In Rhode Island, nearly 175 people signed up for a plan within the first 72 hours of the special enrollment period, said Lindsay Lang, director of the state's exchange. Michele Eberle, executive director of Maryland's health exchange, said more than 1,500 people enrolled in 48 hours. Washington has had 2,970 applications, and 530 people have been enrolled.
“There are things beyond our control that may happen, such as the coronavirus," said Eberle, "and it’s really helpful to have that peace of mind, such as health insurance.”
Renata Marinaro works with a population whose health insurance status is volatile even under ordinary circumstances: employees in the entertainment industry.
As the national director of health services for the Actors Fund, a nonprofit that offers support services for professional entertainers, Marinaro has seen requests for help skyrocket over the past week as businesses that employ artists are closing. Of the 2,000 calls the organization has received, she said, many are looking for financial help. But insurance is a major concern, too. Because many in the industry face inconsistent work hours and income, she said, they tend to switch plans often or go without coverage.
“We see them moving in and out of many different types of insurance, public and private," said Marinaro. She said she fears more upheaval ahead.
Whether driven by unemployment or the virus, the demand for health insurance during the special enrollment period could pose a financial risk for insurers in these states, said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University. Insurers rely on covering a stable number of people — or risk pool — to calculate how much to charge for health coverage.
A run on health coverage now — after insurers have set prices for plans — could lead to insurers paying out more to cover the sick than they take in.
“The rules of the game changed on them in the middle of the plan year," said Corlette.
Requests to the Association of Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, for comment on the states' efforts were not returned.
State officials said insurers have been supportive of the move to create a special enrollment period to respond to COVID-19. Nevada has taken steps to mitigate the risk by prohibiting people who lost insurance because they did not pay for their plan on time, said Heather Korbulic, executive director of the state's exchange. But those people can try to work with their insurer to resume coverage.
Despite the gamble, state officials said they don't view reopening the exchanges as rewarding residents who ignored regular enrollment efforts. A second chance to get coverage may translate to healthier, younger people buying plans and offsetting the costs of the sick, some said.
However, only time will tell whether the healthy or sick will sign up, said Dr. Charlene Wong, a pediatrician and health care researcher at Duke University.
“It’s hard to know how people are going to behave right now," Wong said, "because it’s an unusual time."
California Healthline reporter Rachel Bluth contributed to this article.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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