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Vermont makes it easy to apply for health insurance

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BRATTLEBORO — Most working Vermonters get their health insurance through their employers. But in just one week, nearly 11,000 Vermonters filed a new application for unemployment insurance, having lost work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What happens to Vermonters' health insurance when they no longer have a job? 

Currently, the Department of Labor is dealing with a backlog of unemployment applications and expects the total count to reach 40,000 when the department is caught up on processing the backlog.

While that's a small amount compared to the more than 9 million people around the country who have lost jobs, it doesn't make the situation any less dire for people trying to figure out how to stay afloat for the next three or four months. In response, the state has expanded the qualification criteria for unemployment insurance, giving just about anyone affected by the pandemic access to income while they are our of work.

But it's not just about income. Most working Vermonters get their health insurance through their employers. What happens when they no longer have a job?

"People who previously had insurance through an employer and may have very reduced monthly income can apply and become eligible for Medicaid," said Adaline Strumolo, the deputy commissioner of Vermont Health Connects, the state's health insurance marketplace that was created in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Those who took advantage of their employer's family plans will also be able to enroll their family members in Medicaid, said Strumolo.

But there are income eligibility thresholds and coverage can only be determined by going online [https://info.healthconnect.vermont.gov/Get_Started] or by calling Vermont Health Connects at 855-899-9600.

"We have tried to make the process easier," said Strumolo. "And that includes eligibility. We're not going to be second-guessing the financial information an applicant is providing."

People who don't meet the income threshold can still qualify for insurance through Vermont's marketplace, and depending on their financial situation, might qualify for subsidies to help pay for coverage. The state has noted that losing your job is considered "a qualifying event" that makes someone eligible for access to insurance through the marketplace. The state has also extended its special enrollment plan through April 17, a date that might get another extension soon. Strumolo also noted that anyone over 65 should be applying for Medicare, not Medicaid.

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Strumolo said now is a good time to explore health insurance options. While the Department of Labor is tackling its backlog, Vermont Health Connect has customer service people ready to answer any questions a newly unemployed person might have.

"We have seen an uptick in applications because of the flexibilities we have put in place," said Strumolo. "People are getting through the door more quickly. But we haven't seen an enormous spike."

Strumolo attributed this to people still dealing with the shock of losing their jobs and getting signed up for unemployment insurance first.

"In an emergency situation, you deal with what's at hand," she said. "And then you deal with other things, such as health insurance."

"We are in communication with staff in the Department of Labor," said Nissa James, spokeswoman for Vermont Health Connect. "We have learned that many people have have had their health coverage extended through their employers."

As far as who is going to pay for the increased demand, Strumolo said while she has not seen any particular provisions in the pandemic stimulus packages, Vermont gets partial funding for its Medicaid program from the federal government.

"While we certainly didn't plan for this pandemic in this year's budget, we are not desperately thinking about where the money is going to come from," said Strumolo.

Strumolo noted in the case of Brattleboro and other Connecticut River Valley towns, a person who works in Vermont, despite their state of residence, applies to Vermont for unemployment insurance. However, a person who works in Vermont but lives in New Hampshire or Massachusetts must apply for health insurance through their state of residence. In Massachusetts, visit the Massachusetts Health Connector [https://www.mahealthconnector.org] and in New Hampshire, the health insurance marketplace and Medicaid information can be found at NH Healthy Families [https://www.nhhealthyfamilies.com/].

On March 30, Gov. Phil Scott signed into law H. 742, which expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance.

The expanded coverage includes anyone who has left work to self-isolate or quarantine because they have been diagnosed with, exposed to, or are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19, or if they belong to a specific group of people identified as high-risk if exposed to the virus. The bill also expanded unemployment benefits to those who are caring for a family member who is sick with, exposed to, or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and to those who are caring for a family member who had an unreasonable risk of exposure to the disease at their place of employment. In addition, people who have voluntarily left a job to care for a school-aged child also qualify for unemployment insurance.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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