Signing up on health exchange website
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The new law also guarantees that people with incomes up to 150 percent of poverty won’t have to pay any premium for a benchmark exchange plan.
Credit: Georgia Health News

More than 40,000 Georgians have signed up for health coverage on the state exchange since a special enrollment period began in February.

That’s the third-highest total among the 36 states using federally run health insurance exchanges. Only the heavily populated states of Florida and Texas had more sign-ups, according to federal data through March 31.

The special enrollment on healthcare.gov began Feb. 15 and will continue until Aug. 15.

Ordinarily, the large share of sign-ups in the exchanges occurs late each year during the standard open enrollment period, when people buy their coverage for the subsequent year. Up until now, the only people who qualified for special enrollment outside the standard window were people who had “qualifying life events,” changes in personal circumstances such as giving birth or going through a divorce.

But this year, President Biden, citing the widespread economic trouble from the COVID-19 pandemic, ordered a special sign-up period open to everyone.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare, created the exchanges so people who don’t have coverage through an employer or a government plan can buy health insurance at a reasonable price.

Many buyers on the exchanges qualify for subsidies, or discounts, on what they pay for their policies. The recently approved COVID relief bill made subsidies available to more people.

For the first time, people earning more than the current cap of 400 percent of the federal poverty level — about $51,000 for an individual and $104,800 for a family of four in 2021 — get access to discounts.

The new law also guarantees that people with incomes up to 150 percent of poverty won’t have to pay any premium for a benchmark exchange plan. And others currently getting subsidies will see them increase, lowering their monthly costs.

Antuan Nguyen is benefiting from the additional credits.

Nguyen, 53, who owns a Japanese restaurant in Athens, will save more than $200 a month off his monthly premium for the same plan. “It was going up every year; this is much better,’’ he says.

The savings come at a good time, with his restaurant’s income dropping due to the COVID pandemic.

Nguyen’s premium dropped from the initial $406 per month to $141 thanks to the new subsidies. “The marketplace [another term for the exchange] is a super bargain now, even for middle-income people,’’ says Harold Weber, an insurance counselor in Athens who worked with Nguyen on getting the better deal.

It’s important for consumers who enrolled before April 1 to return to healthcare.gov, the call center or their insurance counselor to get the extra financial assistance, said Laura Colbert of the advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future. The enhanced subsidies won’t automatically be applied for these people, she said.

“The high enrollment numbers demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act is an invaluable safety net for consumers during volatile economic times,’’ Colbert said. “It also seems to signal that some consumers need more than a six-week window to navigate the enrollment process, and that promotion, marketing, and consumer assistance during enrollment opportunities really do impact how many people get covered.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Health News.