Health insurance

Wildfires and omicron trigger special health insurance enrollment period in Colorado

A wildfire displaced thousands of Coloradans just as the omicron wave was beginning to sweep through the state, so health insurance was probably not on many people’s minds when the doldrums began. Regular registration for the state health insurance market closed on January 15. But now, because of these twin emergencies, everyone in the state will have another chance to register.

State officials launched a special market registration period on Wednesday, through March 16, open to all uninsured Coloradans, whether they were directly impacted by the fire or the COVID-19 outbreak. .

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The Marshall Fire began Dec. 30, just two weeks before the deadline to sign up for a 2022 plan. The blaze has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses, quickly becoming the state’s most destructive blaze by number of lost structures.

“It’s such a disruption to people’s lives,” Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway said. “It’s not just people who have lost their homes – it’s on every level, affecting the whole community.”

Meanwhile, the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus sent COVID cases soaring to record highs in January, stressing hospitals and healthcare systems.

“These people are just trying to rebuild their lives,” said Kevin Patterson, CEO of Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act. “So giving them a bit more time seemed like a reasonable and thoughtful thing to consider.”

In addition to providing immediate relief to Coloradans in the event of a crisis, the decision underscores how industry attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act have changed. Insurance companies were initially skeptical of the financial risks and worried that consumers would game the system. But insurers have widely embraced exchanges and are working to enroll as many people as possible. After encountering some issues during the special enrollment period held last year due to COVID, health plans agreed to the removal of guarantees – such as a limited time window to enroll in coverage – that regulators once demanded.

Amid the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and tragic wildfires, it’s important that Colorado residents have the ability to obtain health care coverage.

– Patrick Gordon, CEO of Rocky Mountain Health Plans

“Amid the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and tragic wildfires, it’s important that Colorado residents have the ability to obtain health care coverage,” said Patrick Gordon, CEO of Rocky Mountain Health. Plans, in an email.

Special registration periods were used in California due to wildfires, in Maine when high winds knocked down power lines, and in the Gulf States affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

These periods were often limited in scope and sometimes required people to provide proof that they had been affected.

Colorado state officials are taking a different route. They’ve chosen to make signing up for coverage as simple as possible and don’t require consumers to demonstrate they qualify.

“It didn’t seem like a necessary thing, especially when you look at our experience over the past year,” Conway said. “The vast majority of the year was effectively a special listing period, and there wasn’t much disruption in the market.”

Special open registration due to COVID

Insurance analyst Charles Gaba said there were three main reasons for limiting health plan enrollment to an open enrollment period.

The first is that deadlines encourage people to sign up. Each year, the number of registrations increases in the last days of the registration period.

Second, insurance companies need time to analyze their revenues and costs in order to set premiums for the following year. This process, Gaba said, usually begins in March.

Third, and most importantly, insurance companies initially pushed for a limited open enrollment period to prevent people from waiting until they were sick to purchase insurance. That changed during the pandemic. Colorado and most other states that run their own exchanges have special registration periods in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID. When the Trump administration refused to do the same for the federal exchange, health insurance trade groups urged him to reconsider. The new Biden administration agreed and extended the enrollment period through August 2021 — and more than 2.8 million more Americans signed up for coverage.

Conway said there was no evidence that consumers waited until they were sick to buy coverage last year. With so many consumers eligible for free or low-cost plans due to more generous subsidies, there’s little reason for them not to sign up immediately.

“As health policy makers, we sometimes get in our heads and see monsters under the bed that just aren’t there because of the complexity of the system,” Conway said.

Colorado health plans have largely supported the move. John Roble, president of Cigna’s Mountain States Market, said the company is allowing early prescription refills and working with local hospitals to transfer patients to help ease crowding in overwhelmed facilities.

Past special enrollment periods have largely attracted a healthier population than standard open enrollment periods. Those with chronic health conditions, who face the potential of high medical bills, typically enroll early in the standard open enrollment period.

“They’re the first out,” said Louise Norris, who operates a health insurance brokerage in Colorado with her husband. “They are ready to register on November 1.”

Procrastinators are those who are generally less concerned about their health and more likely to leave things to the last minute, she said. The extra time will also help people who have chosen not to have insurance but then experience a significant medical issue after the standard open enrollment period closes, she said.

State officials said new health concerns from the fires and the omicron surge could also make health coverage more important for some Coloradans.

Consumers benefit when more people, especially healthy people, sign up. “The more people covered, the more stable the overall risk pool, the more stable the premiums for consumers,” said Adam Fox, deputy director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. non-profit. “All of these things help people stay covered.”

States that run their own exchanges often extend the registration deadline by a week or two to give latecomers more time. But it’s unclear if other states will follow Colorado’s lead and provide a window of two months or more in response to omicron’s push.

“Without the fires, I’m not sure they would think about it,” Conway said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.