Special to TAPintoSPF. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Many thousands of New Jerseyans have lost their employer-paid health insurance as businesses across the state have closed their doors in the COVID-19 pandemic, and now employees are scrambling for coverage through Obamacare or Medicaid.

State officials and nonprofit leaders offered advice on Wednesday on how to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Medicaid, and on where to turn if you are among the estimated 500,000 people who were uninsured even before the coronavirus hit.

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Some 70% of New Jersey employees get their health insurance through their employer, and so loss of a job often means loss of health coverage, said Maura Collinsgru, health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, a liberal advocacy group that provides direct services to low- and moderate- income people.

“Many people are not aware what they can do or where they can turn if they cannot continue their coverage through their employer, either because it’s no longer available, or it’s unaffordable to them to carry through COBRA,” she said at a news conference, referring to the federal program that allows people to temporarily continue their coverage by paying both their own premiums and the employer’s.

Collinsgru and other advocates said laid-off workers can sign up for Obamacare even outside the annual fall enrollment period because they have experienced a life-changing event, in this case the loss of a job.

Although the Trump administration declined Gov. Phil Murphy’s request to open a special enrollment period in the ACA in light of the COVID-19 emergency, advocates said people who have lost their coverage can get covered under the ACA as long as they do so within 60 days of losing their previous coverage.

‘Every means at its disposal’

The Murphy administration is “disappointed” that the federal government turned down the request, but will use “every means at its disposal” to ensure that New Jerseyans know what coverage options remain during the public health crisis, said Carole Johnson, commissioner at the Department of Human Services.

“It is yet another reminder of why the governor has made creating our own state-based exchange a priority because when we have our own state-based exchange, we will be able to make these decisions for ourselves,” Johnson said at the online news conference. New Jersey was already expected to transition from a federal- to a state-based ACA marketplace in late 2020.

With the loss of many thousands of health policies, many people will also be eligible for the state’s Medicaid coverage, she said, noting that New Jersey expanded the low-income insurance program so that a single individual making less than 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $1,468 a month, is eligible, she said.

No one on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program will lose their coverage during the current emergency, and no enrollee will have to pay copays for COVID-19 testing or related treatment, Johnson said.

But Raymond Castro, health policy director at the research group New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), said most of the newly unemployed won’t be eligible for Medicaid if they are single individuals without children because they will qualify for unemployment insurance, whose benefits exceed the eligibility level for Medicaid.

Pandemic unemployment aid

Still, those who do not qualify for unemployment insurance may be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which has a lower level of benefits, and so may allow the holder to qualify for Medicaid, Castro said.

NJPP said people who lost their coverage will have the option of continuing their insurance through COBRA but warned that it may be more expensive than being insured through Obamacare.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank, more than 147,000 New Jerseyans with employee-paid health insurance lost their jobs in the two weeks to March 28, among some 3.5 million workers nationally who lost their coverage along with their jobs.

Ann Gatti, a 60-year-old resident of Riverside in Burlington County, lost her health insurance after her employer, a Delran day-care center for seniors and the developmentally disabled, closed on March 20.

She signed up for Obamacare effective April 1, the day after her old policy was terminated, ensuring there would be no break in her coverage, and costing her a few dollars less than the $120 a month she had been paying in premiums for the terminated policy.

Before taking the day-care job five years ago, Gatti got covered by Obamacare after losing her job at a supermarket where she had worked for 26 years until the market closed in 2011.

Gatti, who takes medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, said she didn’t want to be without health insurance even though she is currently unemployed. She predicted that she will get her job back when the day-care center reopens.

“I was hoping that it was still available, so I took action pretty fast,” she said, referring to Obamacare. “If Obamacare hadn’t been available to me, I probably would have been dead when I lost my insurance with the grocery store. Cholesterol and blood pressure were very high and if I hadn’t had Obamacare, I wouldn’t have been able to get that taken care of.”

Initiatives by the private sector

In the private sector, health insurers have stepped up with a range of services designed to help policyholders during the COVID-19 crisis, said Ward Sanders, president of the New Jersey Association of Health Plans, a trade association representing commercial and Medicaid health insurers, at the news conference.

He said some insurers have waived a requirement that furloughed employees cannot be covered unless they are actively at work, while others have extended grace periods for businesses to make premium payments.

After talks with policymakers and legislators, insurers have also agreed to cover testing and treatment for COVID-19 infections and telemedicine without copays, Sanders said.

“It’s clear this pandemic requires a far-reaching and coordinated response from government and the private sector,” he said.

For the uninsured, federally qualified health centers are offering services for testing and treatment of COVID-19 symptoms, said Dr. Kemi Alli, CEO of the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton. She said all 20 of the centers around the state have adopted telemedicine to some extent, in an effort to reduce person-to-person contact during the pandemic. At the Trenton center, 90% of the center’s work is now done through telemedicine, she said.

Paperwork requirements have been relaxed at the centers, and all have employees who can advise patients on signing up for Obamacare, Alli said.

To view this story in its original format, including pictures, visit: https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/04/laid-off-employees-scramble-for-new-health-coverage-in-covid-19-pandemic.

However many people find alternative sources of health insurance or treatment after losing their jobs, the current crisis will renew debate over the workability of the U.S. health insurance system, predicted Jay Feinman, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden, where he is co-director of the Rutgers Center for Risk and Responsibility.

“It points out some of the issues that have been politically controversial about the way we provide health care,” he said. “Some large percentage of Americans get their health insurance from employers, which means that if they lose their jobs they have this problem.”