Consumers are generally able to enroll in a commercial health insurance plan through the healthcare.gov website during the open enrollment period between November and December each year unless they experience an event that qualifies them for a special enrollment period, such as losing a job or getting married. However, the state and federal governments also have the option of opening a special enrollment period for all consumers, which allows them to enroll in a plan or switch plans outside of the annual open enrollment period. This option is only available to states that run their own health insurance exchange. As of April 1, 2020, 11 states and the District of Columbia have opened a special enrollment period in response to the coronavirus outbreak. These states have opted to improve access to health insurance for their uninsured and underinsured residents, which has become even more important as the cost of receiving treatment for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) can be very costly. For those with insurance, consumers could be responsible for over $1,000 in out-of-pocket costs, and the cost of treatment could be as high as $73,000 for those who are uninsured.
The Trump Administration had considered opening a special enrollment period in response to the growing number of Americans who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. However, on March 31, 2020, a White House official informed the press that the administration would not be opening a special enrollment period on the federal exchange platform to allow consumers to enroll in a health plan or switch between plans. If a federal special enrollment period were opened, consumers in states that use the federal exchange platform would have been able to enroll in a plan or switch between plans for the duration of the special enrollment period. While Americans who recently lost their job will be eligible for a special enrollment period regardless of the administration’s decision, those who were already uninsured may have no way of enrolling in a health plan until the end of the year, depending on the state they live in. The White House official did not explain why the administration chose not to pursue a special enrollment period, but the decision could leave many uninsured Americans without access to affordable care during one of the worst public health crises in a generation.