Health Insurance Options for the Unemployed During COVID-19

7.1 million Americans filed for unemployment in March 2020 due to the coronavirus. Nearly everyone knows someone who is either furloughed or out of a job. The sharp spike in unemployment leaves many of us unsure of where to turn for benefits like health insurance.

Furloughed vs. Laid Off: What’s the difference?

Being furloughed is not the same as being laid off. Furloughed employees are required to take an unpaid leave of absence from work with the intention that they will return in the future. Laid off employees have been permanently let go from their jobs. Many organizations are furloughing employees as they shut down or reduce work during the pandemic.

Thankfully, many companies are continuing their health care plans for furloughed employees, which means you may still be insured if you’ve been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. However, health benefits will vary by company, so be sure to reach out to your HR department to ask about your specific health coverage.

Health insurance options for the unemployed

For those who have been laid off and are now uninsured, there are still options for getting health insurance. We’ll walk through some of the options and who might take advantage of them.

State-provided health insurance

State governments provide insurance for those who are not or cannot be insured by an employer. To enroll in a health insurance plan, you typically need to do so during the open enrollment period. There are also qualifying life events, like losing a job, that allow you to enroll in health insurance outside of the open enrollment period.

Some states are reopening the open enrollment period. If you live in the following states, you can shop for insurance just like you would during open enrollment:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

COBRA

If you recently lost your job and employer-provided health insurance, then you are likely eligible for COBRA. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, or COBRA, requires your old employer to offer the same health care coverage while you look for a new job.

COBRA can be quite expensive because you’ll need to pay the full premium of your coverage, plus an administrative fee. When you were employed, your company likely paid for a portion of these health care costs. So if you can find other ways to get insured, it might save you money.

Medicaid and other programs

You might qualify for Medicaid or similar programs, like CHIP. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, provide free or low-cost health care for Americans with low incomes, the elderly, people with disabilities, and more.

There is no open enrollment period for Medicaid, so if you’re eligible you can enroll at any time. You can see if you’re eligible for either program at HealthCare.gov.

Spouse’s health insurance

You may have lost your job, but perhaps your spouse is still working through the pandemic. If that’s the case, your loss of a job might be a qualifying life event which could allow you to be added to your spouse’s health insurance as a dependent. Each company is different, so be sure to have your spouse check before considering this option.

Prescription medication while unemployed and uninsured 

Prescriptions still need to be filled, even if you’re out of work and uninsured. Thankfully, there are some tips you can try to keep your prescription costs down.

If you have an HSA, use that account to pay for prescriptions to keep out-of-pocket costs down. Also be sure to ask your pharmacist if there’s a generic version of your medication. Optum Perks is a free service that provides discounts to help you save money on most prescription medications at most major pharmacies.

Is COVID-19 testing and treatment covered by the government?

COVID-19 testing is covered until the end of 2020 under The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, even if you’re uninsured. This means that all patient cost-sharing like deductibles and copayments are covered for COVID-19 testing.

Looking to the future, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act requires that all insurance plans cover any COVID-19 treatment, including a vaccine. However, additional care may require out-of-pocket costs.

If you want to know more about COVID-19, visit perks.optum.com/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-coronavirus for information about symptoms and testing.