Did you file for unemployment in Colorado this year? You may be eligible for free health insurance.

“I’ve been avoiding health stuff for so long, but now I’m just taking full advantage of it. It took a pandemic.”

A negative pressure room inside St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A negative pressure room inside St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

KEVIN-lighter

Stacey Peterson will soon get a mammogram. It’s one of a few crucial procedures she put off for years until she finally had an insurance plan to fall back on last month.

Peterson spent much of the past seven years working remotely for a national email marketing company. For the first five, she said, her employer considered her a contractor. She was eligible for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and the rates were affordable enough that she could keep seeing a doctor.

About three years ago, she said, her company reclassified her as an employee but elected not to provide her with health benefits. The new status disqualified her from the insurance she relied on for years. Purchasing a new plan suddenly became economically unfeasible, so she skipped the expense and only sought care when it was absolutely necessary. Still, her situation was precarious. She recalled a trip she took to an emergency room, which ended up costing $3,500 even though it only yielded a prescription for antibiotics.

Then, during the pandemic, business slowed and Peterson got word that she would be laid off.

While losing her job has been devastating in a lot of ways, it also delivered a silver lining. A new allowance written into the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March, opened a pathway for her back into a doctor’s care.

The law, which authorized a third round of stimulus checks and child tax credits, also offers free or low-cost health insurance for people who filed for unemployment in 2021 and who live in states with an Obamacare marketplace. Colorado is one of those states. Because Peterson received unemployment this year, she’s one of the hundreds of thousands of people in this state who qualify for the new program. The American Rescue Plan also widened access to the marketplace for people who did not file for unemployment this year.

For a single mother who has worked hard to keep up with the metro’s rising cost of living, it was a huge relief. The call to schedule her mammogram was one of several she made as soon as she got the green light.

“I’ve been avoiding health stuff for so long, but now I’m just taking full advantage of it,” she said. “It took a pandemic.”

Connect for Health Colorado, the nonprofit that administers Obamacare for the state, wants to make sure everyone who qualifies knows how to access the new program.

The free healthcare plan is technically a tax credit, which means anyone who filed for unemployment and got insurance through the marketplace this year can get a rebate when they file their taxes in 2022. But you can get those savings ahead of time if you sign up with Connect for Health Colorado now, which is what Peterson did.

People who received as little as one unemployment check in Colorado qualify for a free or low-cost “silver plan” from the marketplace, which covers about 70 percent of expenses. The program will only be offered through the end of 2021.

Monica Caballeros, spokesperson for Connect for Health Colorado, said the nonprofit has over 1,000 navigators taking virtual and in-person appointments to help people navigate the system.

“Know that we can get you connected to expert help, and it’s free,” she told us.

Peterson said she really appreciated the extra help she received from an agent.

“He was full of knowledge and extremely patient, walked me through the whole thing, spent two hours with me. The experience was something that you don’t get a lot anymore,” she said. “He also asked me to tell everybody and anybody, because it’s not just for unemployed people.”

Connect for Health Colorado is also working to get the word out to people who are struggling to afford healthcare but did not file for unemployment. The American Rescue Plan temporarily changed how marketplaces calculate subsidies for their plans. Through the end of 2022, people of all income levels can access plans at cheaper monthly rates than are usually available.

Until the American Rescue Plan passed, even the poorest Americans had to pay something for Obamacare plans. For now, people who make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level (about $19,000 a year) can access insurance for free. The legislation also requires that no one will pay more than 8.5 percent of their income on marketplace insurance plans. Caballeros said federal lawmakers are working to make these changes permanent.

Though Caballeros said they’re still trying to reach Coloradans, those in the know were quick to take the agency up on the cheaper plans.

Between the American Rescue Plan’s authorization in March and the beginning of May, 17,000 people statewide had signed up for new insurance. She said a lot of existing customers also upgraded their plans now that income tiers have become more lenient.

“I think we’ve seen, at the end of the day, cost is king, and people sign up when they can afford plans,” she said.

Donald Nwankwo upgraded his family’s coverage when the new rules took effect. Nwankwo spent most of his career as a data analyst in corporate America, and his job always came with health benefits. But a calling to serve a higher power put him in a new situation. He quit his job, went to seminary and, in 2018, moved to Denver to lead the Light of Christ Anglican Church in Harvey Park.

This year, the new rules allowed Nwankwo to upgrade from a bronze plan to a silver plan without much more expense. While he didn’t lose his job in the last year, he said cheaper insurance is still a big deal.

“We’re a family of five, and we’re not wealthy,” he said. “I must say that if I was left out there, I don’t know what I would have done.”

He also said his experience with the program changed the way he views insurance coverage as a topic of debate in this country.

“It’s no longer, that’s a political debate that I hear in the news. For me, this is real,” he said.

Nwankwo said a lot of his congregants are refugees who struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic. He’s been fervently spreading the word that they can get a break if they want insurance.

“For me, this is about real families, parents with their children,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated to clarify the Peterson’s employment timeline and reflect that people at all income levels have access to cheaper monthly rates on marketplace insurance plans under the American Rescue Plan. 

 

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