Burlington County Times

NJ Senators Blast Trump's Decision To Keep ACA Enrollment Closed

Burlington County Times — April 3, 2020

By David Levinsky

Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are now out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, and there's growing concern that many of them won't have access to affordable health care coverage when they and their families might need it most.

Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, and there is growing concern that many of them won't have access to affordable health care coverage when they and their families might need it most.

Likewise, many residents who were uninsured before the outbreak started now find themselves with little or no access to affordable care.

That has raised alarms with several New Jersey lawmakers, who had called on the Trump administration to reopen Affordable Care Act enrollment for any uninsured American.

"These are not political issues. This is about people's health and well-being and safety," Sen. Cory Booker said Thursday during a news conference with Sen. Bob Menendez. "It's time to let Americans access affordable health care."

President Donald Trump had been considering the idea of reopening enrollment, but his administration revealed this week that it had decided against it.

The rejection was first reported by the news site Politico, which quoted a White House official who said the administration was "exploring other options."

Later, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence said that people would not have to worry about the costs of treatment for coronavirus, and that the administration was looking at using programs such as Medicaid and Medicare to potentially cover some medical expenses.

Booker said that the decision against opening up ACA enrollment defied "common sense" and that the crisis demands giving people access to health care.

"Here's what I know: The demand for medical services is not going to go away in April. The health care challenges of our state and our nation are not going to go away in May. And we have millions of Americans who are not insured right now," he said. "The simple request for this president to open up enrollment to the Affordable Care Act is common sense. To not do so is cruel."

Menendez was also critical of the decision and said he hoped the administration would reconsider.

"No one should go without health insurance during a health crisis. Reopening ACA enrollment to allow those without insurance to sign up is the right and humane thing to do," he said. "We don't want anyone who needs to see a doctor to avoid seeking medical help because they can't afford it, nor should anyone face bankruptcy due to high medical bills at a time when the coronavirus is causing them greater financial stress."

The total number of state residents who are uninsured is unclear. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 655,000 New Jerseyans were uninsured in 2018.

But in the wake of the pandemic — and the mass business closures it has caused — the ranks of people without coverage are expected to grow.

More than 361,000 residents have filed for unemployment insurance since March 15 in the wake of all the business closures. More still have had their work hours reduced or received pay cuts, leaving them struggling to afford premiums and copayments.

Not all the recently unemployed will lose their health care since they have the option to extend their employer's plan for up to 18 months through COBRA. But doing so is typically expensive because the employer no longer pays any portion of the premium.

Laid-off workers also have the option to buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act and its online marketplace, healthcare.gov, because losing their job is considered a "qualifying event" that allows them to enroll outside the normal fall enrollment period. But that still leaves out thousands of residents who lacked insurance before the outbreak and who remain shut out.

"This is another example of the Trump administration failing to understand the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Ray Castro, health policy director with the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. "There are currently 150,000 uninsured New Jersey residents who qualify for subsidized plans in the marketplace who will be unable to access them due to the Trump administration's decision not to reopen the enrollment period."

Castro warned that the move could put more people at risk if residents forgo care because they cannot afford it, and that it would only further increase the impact and expense of the pandemic response.

He said one silver lining was that recently unemployed residents can still purchase coverage. "This is a policy that was already in place prior to COVID-19 and should be explored by any resident who is now out of work," he said.

Maura Collinsgru, health care program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said too many unemployed residents are unaware they can obtain health coverage that way. Similarly, she said workers whose hours or pay has been cut can also enroll for more affordable coverage though healthcare.gov or through the providers listed on New Jersey's portal, getcovered.nj.gov.

Reopening enrollment for everyone would help address some of the confusion, Collinsgru said.

"It would ease confusion and make it easier to manage the pandemic. It would also encourage people to get covered," she said. "The issue of having an affordable option is still a problem."

She believes the administration's decision not to reopen enrollment is due to the ongoing court battle over the Affordable Care Act and Trump's support of a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Obama-era law.

"If the administration wants to do anything to help health care, they should withdraw their support," Collinsgru said.

State health officials said residents with symptoms of coronavirus and those who test positive need access to health care.

"If someone has symptoms, you need to get them to some type of organized care. If they have symptoms and they are positive, they are going to need to be followed up by a medical professional responsible for your care," state Department of Health Commissioner Judy Perschilli said Thursday. "If you have symptoms and just go for a test and get it back and it's positive, what do you do with it? You're going to have to find a doctor or advanced practice nurse to help you and follow up with you."

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