Pandemic Hitting You in the Wallet? How to Find Health Coverage or Low-Cost Medical Help

September 01, 2020 9:01 AM

COVID-19 has meant lost jobs, lost wages, and other disruptions – but that doesn’t mean you have to risk health problems or financial ruin by going uncovered or untreated.

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Editor’s note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing. For the latest numbers and updates, keep checking the CDC’s website. For the most up-to-date information from Michigan Medicine, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage

Whether it’s a layoff, a business closing, a drop in freelance gigs, a reduction in hours or a need to step away from a job to take care of family, the work lives of millions of Americans have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These changes can mean a loss of job-related health insurance, or a cut in the pay that they usually use to buy their own health insurance. Several analyses suggest that 5 million people will become uninsured because of the recession caused by the pandemic.

But many people who have lost their coverage can get help with finding a new insurance plan – or help with finding coverage if they didn’t have it in the first place

Even if you can’t find an ongoing source of health insurance coverage, now’s the time to find out where to go for free or low-cost care, or financial assistance with care or prescriptions.

And this is no time to go without health coverage or care. Besides the threat of COVID-19, research has shown that many health problems get worse if they’re ignored or not discovered through routine screening. And having insurance can protect major financial problems if you or a member of your family gets sick or injured.

Just ask the financial counselors at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center, who help thousands of people every year get health coverage or income-based discounts on care they need to pay for directly.

Here are some tips from Michigan Medicine’s own health assistance gurus:

1. No matter what your situation, start with the Healthcare.gov website to see what you might qualify for. Don’t assume that there’s nothing for you there.

Even if you’ve never had to buy your own health insurance before, this is the place to see what’s available to you. The site will show you what kind of financial help you can get to pay part or all of your insurance costs, depending on your income.

Usually, this website is used each fall by people who need to buy insurance for the next year. And the enrollment for 2021 plans begins November 1.

But throughout the year, the system is open for use by people who have life events that qualify them to buy coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

One of those events is losing a job, or losing health care coverage because the person whose plan you were covered by lost their coverage.

SEE ALSO: To Prevent Problems Later, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Now

Normally, you have to apply for coverage within 60 days of that happening. But there’s a special rule for people who lost their coverage in 2020. Because of COVID-19-related disruptions, they can apply now even though the usual time limit has expired.

So, if you have lost your job-related health insurance coverage since the start of 2020, or you expect to lose your coverage in the next 60 days, you likely qualify for a Special Enrollment Period for health insurance enrollment on healthcare.gov. Now is the time to go see what’s available to you.

2. An income drop may make you eligible for programs you weren’t eligible for before.

Federal and state unemployment benefits have helped many people who have lost income temporarily or permanently in recent months because of the pandemic.

SEE ALSO: Seeking Medical Care During COVID-19

New funds through FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will provide temporary help to people in many states this month, now that the original federal program has ended.

But both houses of Congress and the President have to reauthorize the main federal program to keep additional money flowing after September.

If your income has dropped, or you’re expecting it to do so soon, you may now be eligible for health insurance programs that you weren’t eligible for before. You can use this quick calculator to figure it out.

For instance, in Michigan and the 36 other states, plus the District of Columbia, you may now be eligible for free or very low-cost health insurance coverage through the expansion of the Medicaid program. In Michigan this is called the Healthy Michigan Plan.

On Healthcare.gov, you may be eligible for reductions in the monthly cost of your insurance, called a premium tax credit. If you choose a Silver-level plan, you may also qualify for reduced costs when you use your insurance, meaning you’ll have to pay less out of your own pocket when you visit a clinic or fill a prescription.

If you don’t qualify for financial help on Healthcare.gov because of your total income or another reason, you can also get help finding an affordable plan from local insurance agents and insurance assistance programs. Find independent insurance help here.

Before you choose an insurance plan, take time to check if the doctors and other providers you’ve seen in the past take part in that plan’s network. If they don’t, and you really want to keep seeing a doctor you’ve seen for a while, you should look for another plan.

Also, take time to understand whether the plan has a high deductible – which means that you’ll be responsible for the first couple of thousand dollars’ worth of care you receive, except for essential preventive services. If you choose a plan with a high deductible, you should put aside money just in case you need care – and you may be eligible to use a special kind of savings account to put that money away tax-free.

3. Low-cost and free clinics can help.

Across the country, health centers designed for people with low incomes offer regular care on a free or low-cost basis, including some with a sliding scale of fees that depend on the patient’s income.

If you need care for a new problem or a chronic condition, check out this website to find the one nearest to you.

SEE ALSO: Price Check: Experts Offer Tips for Avoiding Health Care Sticker Shock

Many county and city health departments offer free or low-cost services such as vaccinations for adults and children, services for pregnant women and children, mental health services, and more. Visit this website to find the one that serves your area.

The United Way offers a hotline in many areas that you can reach just by calling 211 from any phone. Or you can look online.

4. Don’t stop taking your prescriptions – there’s help available.

If you’ve been taking a prescription drugs, but you lost the insurance coverage or income that used to pay for them, it’s important to let your doctor or other provider know.

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They or a member of their team may be able to help you get help locating a free or low-cost prescription service, or switch you to a lower-cost generic medication.

Don’t just stop taking the medicine after you finish what you have left, or split pills to make them stretch further.

You can also visit websites that can connect you with financial aid to pay for your prescriptions, such as the Medication Assistance Tool offered by the pharmaceutical industry, and nonprofit programs such as Rx Assist, Needy Meds and RxHope.

5. If you have medical bills or upcoming services and you can’t pay, communicate!

Losing a job or income means having to stretch every dollar further. If you can no longer keep up with the payments on past bills, now is the time to communicate openly and honestly with your health care provider’s financial office.

If you have a scheduled appointment, scan, procedure or operation coming up, talk with the doctor’s office as far in advance as possible, to describe your situation and understand what options you have.

Many hospitals and clinics offer discounts, low-interest payment plans and other programs for people who have outstanding bills for past care, or who need to pay directly for the care they receive. These may be based on income, so you may qualify now even if you didn’t in the past. For instance, the Michigan Medicine team helps patients apply for the MSupport program, which is based on the medical center’s Financial Assistance Policy.

When you contact the financial office at your provider’s clinic or hospital, let them know your circumstances and ask for help in understanding what is available to you.

6. Don’t forget that food, housing and transportation are important to your health, and get help for them too.

What does having a reliable car, or enough food in the pantry, or a regular place to sleep, have to do with your health?

A lot, it turns out.

In fact, experts have a term for this: Social determinants of health.

That’s just a short way of saying “the things in your life that can indirectly affect your health” whether it’s being able to get to a doctor’s appointment on time, eating a low-salt or low-fat diet to keep your blood pressure or cholesterol in check, or just keeping your stress level as low as possible.

SEE ALSO: Keeping Our Patients Safe During COVID-19

If you’re having trouble in these parts of your life, it can spill over to your health. Don’t hesitate to seek help by calling or emailing the 211 assistance line, by using this map to find a local food bank and rent assistance/eviction prevention programs in your area, by signing up for SNAP food benefits (formerly known as “food stamps”), or enrolling your child in the free breakfast and lunch program at school.

This safety net of services was there for others before you – now let it help you.