May 19, 2024

State offers special health insurance enrollment period, extended Medicaid benefits to flood survivors

This summer’s natural disaster also arrived as Vermont — like all states — was unwinding a series of pandemic-era safety nets, including relaxed Medicaid eligibility rules. Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

Vermont is offering a special health insurance enrollment period and extended Medicaid benefits to people impacted by last month’s historic flooding.

Typically, signing up for a health insurance plan through Vermont Health Connect is limited to an annual open enrollment period between Nov. 1 and Jan. 15. But the Department of Vermont Health Access, which administers the state’s federally subsidized health insurance marketplace, announced Thursday that individuals can sign up for a qualified health plan now if they tell the state they were impacted by the floods. 

“We want to help those affected by this natural disaster in any way we can, and that includes ensuring that our friends, family, and neighbors avoid gaps in their health coverage,” Andrea DeLaBruere, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Health Access, wrote in a statement.

There is no deadline for the special enrollment period for people affected by the flood, DeLaBruere added in an email, but Vermonters are encouraged to enroll as soon as possible to ensure coverage.

This summer’s natural disaster also arrived as Vermont — like all states — was unwinding a series of pandemic-era safety nets, including relaxed Medicaid eligibility rules. For three years during the public health emergency, the federal government prevented states from dropping people from Medicaid. But that rule expired this spring, and states must once again verify individuals are eligible to maintain coverage.

More than 11,000 people lost their benefits in May and June, according to the Department of Health Access, which also administers Medicaid. The vast majority were kicked off the rolls for administrative reasons, like failing to respond to their renewal notice.

Medicaid benefits for Vermonters whose renewal deadline was in July and who didn’t respond to notices, however, will be automatically extended into August, according to DVHA. And those who were impacted by the floods who did respond to notices and were deemed ineligible can ask for one more month of benefits. To request that extension, Vermonters must call 855-899-9600 by Friday, Aug. 11.

But if someone due for renewal in July doesn’t get in touch with the state in August and no longer qualifies, “they will not be renewed for Medicaid,” DeLaBruere wrote. 

“There is a process Vermonters can use to file an appeal,” she added.

Avery Book, the president of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which advocates for universal health care, said that remains the organization’s topline health care goal. But in the absence of such progress, Book said he’d like to see the state offer more leniency as it reexamines its Medicaid rolls, including by pausing redetermination letters that it planned to send out in August.

“In some cases, post offices aren’t working up to full capacity. People aren’t necessarily living in their usual place of residence,” he said.

Before the pandemic’s pause on regular renewal rules, people frequently lost their Medicaid benefits even though they still qualified — simply because they missed a deadline or failed to correctly navigate the paperwork. That “churn,” as Medicaid administrators call it, was a source of concern for Vermont officials as the Covid-era hiatus ended, and they pledged to do what they could to minimize it.

But since the old Medicaid rules have gone back into effect, nationally, 74% of disenrollments are for procedural reasons, according to data compiled by KFF, a nonprofit that conducts health policy research. Vermont is doing only a little bit better than the national average: 68% of its disenrollments were administrative, according to KFF.

“Two-thirds of people — even before this flooding — were getting kicked off unjustly. This just seems like a bad idea to insist on rolling ahead with it,” Book said. “What DVHA is putting out doesn’t cut it for people with the level of disruption that they’re facing.”

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