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Colorado is extending its special health insurance enrollment period because so many are rushing to get coverage

The state created the enrollment period so more people can have health insurance as the coronavirus spreads

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Several thousand Coloradans have signed up for health insurance during a special open-enrollment period created in response to the new coronavirus, but time is running out to get coverage right away.

Friday is the last day of the open-enrollment window for people who are currently uninsured but who want to buy coverage that will work for April. The state has extended the open-enrollment window until April 30. But coverage bought after Friday won’t kick in until May 1.

The special open-enrollment period is for anyone without insurance, working or not. For people who lost coverage because they lost their job due to the coronavirus outbreak — or any other reason — there are additional opportunities to buy health insurance, as usual.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
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From March 20, when the special open-enrollment window opened, through March 31, more than 5,200 people signed up for coverage on Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s online health insurance marketplace.

It’s impossible to know how many of those signed up specifically because of the coronavirus open-enrollment period and how many had other exemptions that allowed them to sign up outside of the normal window — which falls in the winter every year. But, looking at the comparable time period from last year, Connect for Health reports that only about 650 people signed up for health insurance.

“By extending the special enrollment period, we are doing our part to help Coloradans get the health coverage they need,” Connect for Health CEO Kevin Patterson said in a statement announcing the extension Thursday. “If you are experiencing an unexpected loss of health coverage or a change in employment, we are ready to help you explore your options.”

If you’re looking for coverage now — or think you might be in the future — here’s what you need to know.

The website for Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health insurance exchange, shown in October 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Coverage for COVID-19

To be clear, the special open-enrollment period allows you to sign up for health insurance that covers everything, not just COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

If you are uninsured, then you can either shop for coverage on Connect for Health’s website or you can go through an insurance broker. Need more tips on how to do that? We created a guide to buying health insurance earlier this year, and everything in that is still valid … as long as you ignore the dates.

This open-enrollment period is only for people who are currently uninsured. It does not allow people who are currently insured to switch coverage.

MORE: A procrastinator’s guide to buying health insurance in Colorado

The special open-enrollment period is one of several actions Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has taken to try to lessen the financial strain of COVID-19. Colorado can create a special open-enrollment window because it operates its own insurance exchange. States that use the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, do not have a similar opportunity, after the Trump administration said no to a special open-enrollment window.

The state Division of Insurance has also told insurers not to charge copays or deductibles for coronavirus testing and has instructed them to cover more telehealth services. And the division has urged insurers to be flexible when working with companies on the timing of monthly premium payments, in recognition of the economic turmoil the coronavirus has unleashed.

Without insurance, the cost of treatment for COVID-19 is steep. One study found that the average cost for in-patient hospital treatment for COVID-19 could top $20,000. Patients without insurance who require treatment with a ventilator for more than four days could see a bill of more than $88,000.

What it costs

The rates for people who are buying coverage on their own this year were locked in months ago, so they won’t be impacted by the coronavirus. As a result of the state’s new reinsurance program, Colorado saw a significant dip in premium prices for many who buy coverage themselves, though folks on the lower-income end may have had to pay more.

Vince Plymell, a spokesman for the Division of Insurance, said COVID-19 could have an impact on insurance rates for next year. But it’s unclear exactly what that impact will be. On one hand, there’s a lot of people needing very expensive treatment to fight the disease. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people not getting elective surgeries or going to the hospital for other reasons, meaning insurers are saving money there. It’s unclear what the final balance will be.

If you lost your job

The loss of a job and the health coverage that came with it, no matter when it happens, is considered a “life change event,” and that means you get your own open-enrollment window for 60 days. So, people who were laid off recently have more time beyond the current window to sign up for new coverage.

It might also be possible to continue your existing coverage with your employer under COBRA. The state Department of Labor’s website has more details. COBRA coverage requires you to pay the full premium, though, with no support coming from your employer or federal tax credits.

Checking for Medicaid eligibility

With the massive coronavirus-related job losses, Colorado officials are expecting a surge in applications for Medicaid, the joint federal and state program to cover low-income individuals, and for the Child Health Plan Plus, a program that covers children from families just above the Medicaid cut-off.

If you’re shopping for insurance on Connect for Health’s website, it will first screen you for possible eligibility for the programs. Or, you can learn more about eligibility and apply for Medicaid on the website of Health First Colorado, which is what the state’s Medicaid program is called. And here’s a rundown on eligibility for the Child Health Plan Plus.In preparation for a surge in applicants, Colorado has recently received federal approval to reduce some of the paperwork requirements for people to get on and stay on Medicaid.