EAU CLAIRE — The U.S. is reopening states’ health insurance marketplaces for three months this spring, and local experts say the pandemic has made it more important than ever for uninsured Chippewa Valley residents to consider buying health insurance.

The HealthCare.gov marketplace typically opens once a year in the fall, but President Joe Biden issued a January executive order opening a special enrollment period from Feb. 15 to May 15, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The special enrollment period “will benefit anyone who isn’t getting insurance through an employer or Medicare,” said Marty Anderson, chief growth officer for Security Health Plan, a subsidiary of Marshfield Clinic Health System. “This is for people who purchase insurance on their own.”

Wisconsin is one of 36 U.S. states where residents can apply for and enroll in health insurance through the HealthCare.gov website.

Many people qualify for partially subsidized, or free, health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

People usually can enroll in Marketplace health insurance coverage if they have a major life event — including getting married, moving, having a baby or losing their other health coverage. That opens them up for a special enrollment period.

But this spring, people won’t have to undergo a major life event, or provide proof that they’re eligible, to sign up for a plan.

“If they’re not sure if they qualify, this is really the time to fill out that application,” said Erin Long, product manager for Security Health Plan.

“It may be that if you don’t qualify for a marketplace plan, you may qualify for Medicaid.”

People who qualify for Medicaid or CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, can apply for those programs at any time; they don’t have to wait for the marketplace to open to enroll.

People covered under the federal COBRA program can also switch to a marketplace plan until May 15. Typically, they’d otherwise have to wait until the fall open enrollment period.

It’s especially vital for people without insurance to consider buying coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Cortney Draxler, policy and systems division manager at the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

“In addition to the risk of COVID-related illness, there are many individuals that experience other chronic illnesses in our community,” Draxler said in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “Uninsured and underinsured people are less likely to seek preventive care and can experience higher costs when they do seek treatment.”

Marketplace health insurance plans go into effect the month after someone enrolls — meaning that if a person enrolls in a marketplace plan on Feb. 23, their plan would become effective on March 1, Long said.

Pandemic drove unemployment higher

The Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan health policy center, in October estimated that 7.7 million U.S. workers had lost jobs with employer-sponsored health insurance as of June 2020. As many as 14.6 million people in the U.S. could have been impacted at that point, according to the estimate.

Though many of those people may have found new work or enrolled in new health insurance plans, unemployment nationally and in Wisconsin jumped during the pandemic.

The unadjusted jobless rate in the Eau Claire metro area was at 5.1% in December, according to preliminary statistics from the state.

Though county and national organizations haven’t released estimates of how many Eau Claire County residents were uninsured in 2020, 6% of county residents didn’t have health insurance in 2017 — about 6,300 people, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings.

Anderson said that since the pandemic began, he’s spoken to people who lost their jobs but missed the 60-day special enrollment period that opens after a job loss. Those people then couldn’t enroll in a marketplace plan.

“The window shopping available through the federal marketplace is really simple,” Anderson said. “Someone can go out there in five to 10 minutes and make the determination if they’re eligible, and what plans might appeal to them.”

One common misconception Long has noticed is the idea that “it’s difficult to fill out an application and sign up,” she said. “The first step is filling out that application to see if you’re eligible for those subsidies. Upwards of 85% of our members are eligible and receive subsidies from the federal government to pay for their premiums.”

People without health insurance can still get some COVID-19 services for free in the Chippewa Valley, Draxler said.

Uninsured people can get tested for COVID-19 for free at Wisconsin National Guard testing sites, including at a site at 501 E. Filmore Ave., Eau Claire.

They’ll also be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine for free, without insurance, when they’re eligible, Draxler added.

Free, local health insurance help is available in multiple languages, including in Spanish and Hmong, at WisCovered.com, at 2-1-1 or at 1-800-942-5420, Draxler said.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.