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What health reform means for the people of Illinois

A blog by IllinoisHealthMatters.org

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Clarifying, Eliminating and Enforcing Special Enrollment Periods

As the Health Insurance Marketplace grows and matures, we continue to listen and learn to find ways to make it work even better for consumers and those who serve consumers. We know that each year, as the Marketplace evolves, we must seek to continually adapt and refine the way we operate. In addition to continually improving the consumer experience, we also must make changes to keep the Marketplace vibrant, stable and strong.

The fundamental principles to achieve this are simple: the Marketplace must be attractive for consumers, and the Marketplace must be attractive for insurance companies that offer plans on it.

Consumers need to know that affordable options are available and that insurers are competing for their business. We know that consumers want affordable health care and value the insurance they’re finding at the Health Insurance Marketplaces. This Open Enrollment we’ve seen a significant influx of new consumers – many of them young – making it clear there is still a large untapped market for insurance companies to serve.

The Marketplace must also be attractive to insurers, so that they make quality plans available at affordable prices and continue to drive innovation, and so consumers can find plans that meet their health and budget needs. Building an attractive Marketplace starts with establishing a predictable, stable set of rules that help to keep the risk pool balanced. As the Marketplace grows and evolves, we continue to analyze data to understand how our rules are impacting insurers and consumers and to make sure they are working to sustain a stable Marketplace. By having clear rules for how the Marketplace operates and making adjustments when needed, we are creating a more stable rate environment with more affordable plan choices for consumers.

One of the areas we have been reviewing closely is the special enrollment periods we offer. Special enrollment periods are an important way to make sure that people who lose their health insurance during the year or who experience a major life change like getting married or having a child, have the opportunity to enroll in coverage through the Marketplaces. People who experience these qualifying events have the opportunity to enroll in coverage outside of the normal Open Enrollment period from November 1 to January 31, similar to how enrollment works in the employer market. In addition, in the first two years of the Marketplace, a number of special enrollment periods were created for consumers who were still learning how to enroll in coverage for the first time.

As the Marketplace matures and consumers learn more about how and when to enroll, we continue to review the rules around special enrollment periods in order to keep them fair for consumers and for issuers. We are taking initial steps in adjusting how special enrollment periods work – and will continue to make further adjustments in the future based on what we learn from continued monitoring and analysis of special enrollment period usage and compliance.

The action we are taking today announces the elimination of several unnecessary special enrollment periods, clarifies the definitions of other special enrollment periods, and provides stronger enforcement so that special enrollment periods serve the purpose for which they are intended and do not provide unintended loopholes.

Eliminating Unnecessary Special Enrollment Periods

Last month, we announced that the Tax Season special enrollment period will no longer be offered. Today we are announcing the elimination of six other special enrollment periods that are no longer needed. Just as the Marketplace evolves, so too does consumer behavior. The rules we use to operate the Marketplace need to keep up with these changes. As such, special enrollment periods are no longer available for:

  • Consumers who enrolled with too much in advance payments of the premium tax credit because of a redundant or duplicate policy
  • Consumers who were affected by an error in the treatment of Social Security Income for tax dependents
  • Lawfully present non-citizens that were affected by a system error in determination of their advance payments of the premium tax credit
  • Lawfully present non-citizens with incomes below 100% FPL who experienced certain processing delays
  • Consumers who were eligible for or enrolled in COBRA and not sufficiently informed about their coverage options
  • Consumers who were previously enrolled in the Pre-Existing Condition Health Insurance Program
We’ll continue to monitor how special enrollment periods are used and may make changes in the future as Marketplace systems and operations continue to improve.

Clarifying Eligibility

Our review of current special enrollment periods also showed that some of the eligibility guidelines need to be further clarified so consumers can understand the intent and so they will not be abused. Today we are updating guidance to more clearly define the special enrollment period that is available to consumers who permanently moved, and as a result, gained access to new health plans. Specifically, we clarify that this special enrollment period cannot be used for a short-term or temporary move where the consumer doesn’t plan to stay in their new location, including situations in which a consumer is admitted to a hospital for treatment in a different area. This clarification is intended to assist consumers, brokers, issuers and others in understanding who is eligible for this special enrollment period.

If we identify other areas where the rules for special enrollment periods are unclear, we will issue additional clarifying guidance as needed.

Enforcing the Rules

Finally, we will take steps to make sure that consumers understand and comply with the rules. We will conduct an assessment of plan selections that are made through certain special enrollment periods to evaluate whether consumers properly accessed coverage. Our program integrity team will pull samples of consumer records nationally and may request additional information from some consumers or take other steps to validate that consumers properly qualified for these special enrollment periods. The findings from the assessment will help us to inform future policy and operational improvements to enhance program integrity. Additional details will be provided in the coming weeks.

We will also emphasize more strongly to applicants that the law requires that consumers provide accurate information to the Marketplace, and they may be subject to penalties under federal law if they intentionally provide false or untrue information.

There is still time for consumers who need coverage to enroll during the Open Enrollment period that ends on January 31st. While there will continue to be special enrollment periods for people who lose coverage mid-year or experience other life changes, this channel for enrollment will not be available for the vast majority of consumers. For example, special enrollment periods are not allowed for people who choose to remain uninsured and then decide they need health insurance when they get sick.  Consumers who do not currently have other health insurance coverage should enroll through the Marketplace now during these last two weeks of Open Enrollment, to make sure they have coverage if they get sick and to avoid the tax penalty.

This was originally posted on the CMS Blog.

Kevin Counihan
Health Insurance Marketplace 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Engaging Uninsured Cynics of the ACA

On a blistering cold Chicago night in November 2013, I met with Lorena, a 25-year-old uninsured Mexican-American bartender whose income fell below $18,000.  Lorena belonged to a group that health policy experts refer to as “newly-eligibles,” single able-bodied adults without children living in poverty who now qualify for Medicaid thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

Lorena could have enrolled herself with relative ease. At the time, outreach efforts for the ACA were in full swing. In her home neighborhood of Pilsen, health navigators, insurance brokers, and nonprofit organizations were at soup kitchens, schools, taxi stands, and social service organizations spreading word and enrolling thousands. Our conversation, however, revealed something surprising.

“Do you plan on applying for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act?” I asked sitting across from her at a south loop coffee shop near the bar she worked.

“No,” she bluntly replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Mainly because I don’t trust government. I think anything they’re going to be putting out is flawed.”  
“What makes you so distrustful?” I asked.

“My friend got these really strong stomach pains and almost fainted so I took her to the county hospital. We were there sitting for hours in the emergency room! The nurses were all hanging out at the desk giggling and laughing and talking to each other drinking their coffee and my friend is bent over like this [Lorena hunches over as she speaks] ready to pass out! I yelled at one of them, “are you gonna take care of her?” They came back to me laughing [telling me], “I’m sorry, we’re actually really professional.”

“What happened to your friend?”

“She was really dehydrated and had a bad urinary tract infection. She spent the night at the hospital which cost her $2300.”

“That experience made you distrustful?”

“Yeah, it’s terrible. When I look at the actual doctors [at the county hospital], they’re very professional and educated but everything else is downhill. With these county clinics, the staff sucks! It’s like they’re hiring just anybody.”

Being Uninsured a Conscious Decision

From November 2013-April 2014, I interviewed 45 uninsured adults like Lorena (between 21 and 35, single, without children, low-income) as part of an ethnographic study of the uninsured in the age of the Affordable Care Act. To my surprise, two-thirds refused to enroll or even inquire about the ACA because of their cynicism in government or the quality of health care provided by Cook County. For people like Lorena, their lack of health insurance did not stem from a lack of outreach or access. Being uninsured was a conscious decision to distance themselves from government and health care agencies.

As outreach efforts continue in Cook County and elsewhere, it is important for health care professionals to remember that the ACA is just one of many arms by which government shapes the lives of the uninsured working poor. For Latinas like Lorena, many of whom have undocumented family members, the ACA is part of the same government body that is deporting family members. For many of my Black respondents, the ACA was seen as part of the same government body whose police force is excessively using deadly force against Black citizens.

Although Medicaid enrollment has exceeded Cook County’s expectations, nearly 600,000 remain uninsured. It’s possible that people like Lorena, with distrust and cynicism toward government and health care, will be the most difficult to enroll.

Lorena’s story highlights the importance of bringing more nuance and strategy to ACA outreach efforts. For cynics of the ACA, simply informing them of their options is not enough to persuade them to enroll. Instead, cynics need to have their opinions validated (no matter how inaccurate or outlandish they might appear) and be empowered to enroll.

Convincing the Skeptics

Two weeks after my interview with Lorena, I observed Abram (a health navigator) put these face-to-face outreach strategies to work during his interaction with Joyce, a 32-year-old cynical and uninsured Black woman. It was family fun night at a Boys and Girls Club in Pilsen. Joyce brought her niece to the event and was sitting at a table eating a sandwich when Abram approached and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Abe.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Joyce.”

“I’m here working for an organization and we’re trying to sign people up for the ACA.”

“Really?” asked Joyce.

“Yes, do you have health insurance now?”


Abe pulled out a bright yellow pamphlet and said, “That’s ok. I can assist you with enrolling. In the end, it is completely up to you to make that final decision if you want to enroll in anything at all. I can start you off to see what’s out there. There’s Medicaid, which is completely free public assistance. With the new Medicaid, insurance companies can no longer deny you for pre-existing conditions.”

Joyce raised her eyebrow asking “Really?”

In response, Abe raised both hands in the air to gesture he meant no harm stuttering “I, I, I, don’t want to make any promises because, obviously, we have to see what plan you are eligible for…”

Joyce interrupted, “But that really means a lot to me because I’ve been denied lots of things in the past.”

Abe continued, “I’m going to leave you with my information [hands her his business card]. [Abe pulls out another sheet of paper] This is a list of documents that we are going to need in order to fill out your application, and I can actually sit down with you, with your permission, to go through the entire application. That is something you could do by yourself if you wanted to, or I could sit down with you and assist you.” One week later, Joyce made an appointment with Abe and enrolled.

Like Lorena, Joyce was skeptical that the Affordable Care Act would benefit her. In my interview with Joyce, she shared frustrating stories of seeking medical treatment for health problems only to be told she was ineligible for assistance.

Abram, however, never discounted or diminished Joyce’s skepticism. Nor did he make any promises that he could not keep. Instead, he validated Joyce’s concerns and reminded her that she was the one in control of the interaction, that she could walk away at any time.

Abram did not have to persuade Joyce to trust government or even health care providers. He just had to convince her to trust him, and he was successful by validating her concerns and empowering her.

The Outreach Road Ahead

As the ACA enters its third year, it is now entering a phase where those with the easiest access have enrolled and where many of the remaining uninsured are the hardest to reach. These include many uninsured adults whose negative experiences with government or health agencies have formed the basis of their outlook toward the ACA.

With face-to-face outreach strategies designed to validate and empower the low-income uninsured into enrolling, organizations conducting outreach for the ACA may be able to continue closing the cracks in the Illinois health insurance safety net. As Joyce said in recalling her interaction with Abe, “He didn’t try to sell me. He just say, once we do this it’s strictly up to you just because you talk with us and give us your information doesn’t mean you have to sign up, the ultimate decision is up to you.”

Robert Vargas
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Robert is currently conducting research on the Affordable Care Act in Chicago, and the publications from his health care research are available at his website www.robvargas.com.