How to Get Healthcare If You’re Unemployed and Uninsured
So you’re now uninsured. Don’t worry, you have healthcare options. Here’s a simple guide to get you started.
Did you recently lose your job or your health insurance benefits? You’re not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns left nearly 31-million people unemployed in the U.S. between March 1 and May 2. Of those who lost jobs in those two months alone, it’s estimated 27 million could have lost their healthcare benefits, too.
If you’ve recently lost your employer-provided health insurance, you need to move quickly to get new coverage. You have options, though! And it’s worth taking the time to understand each.
To help, we’ve rounded up three different paths you could take based on what you’re eligible for and how you want to go forward:
- Buy a new plan
- Get government aid
- Stay uninsured
27-million people could have lost their health insurance to COVID-19 shutdowns.
1. Options for buying a new plan
You’re likely eligible for COBRA. COBRA is the federal law that allows employees who have left, been fired or laid off, or furloughed, to keep their current coverage for 18 months.
This, however, can get expensive.
You’ll likely pay out-of-pocket for the full premium, since your employer likely paid a part of that cost before now. In other words, the monthly cost of a health insurance plan is now all on you — in addition to any expenses you might get from doctor visits or prescriptions.
Your other options are to buy a new plan through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace (ACA) or from some private insurers.
Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance from the Marketplace
The ACA (aka Obamacare) makes affordable health insurance available to more Americans. It does this by giving subsidies, or premium tax credits, on insurance plans for low-income households.
You can buy a health insurance plan for you and/or your family by applying on the Marketplace at healthcare.gov.
The Marketplace will give you plan options based on your household and estimated income for the year. You’ll pick a plan and then enroll with the insurance company before making your first payment.
Typically you’d apply for one of these plans during the Open Enrollment Period. But a Special Enrollment Period is available if you’ve experienced certain life events, like moving, getting married, having a baby or losing health coverage.
• Important to know: You have 60 days after losing coverage to apply on the Marketplace.
To learn more about applying for ACA coverage, read our article, “How to Apply for ACA”
Some insurance companies sell private plans outside the Open Enrollment period. These plans aren’t listed as options when you apply on the Marketplace. Instead, you’ll have to find and buy these plans through the insurance companies, agents or brokers.
The benefit of a private insurance plan is that you might find more comprehensive coverage.
The cons are that it’s likely more expensive than a plan you’d find on the Marketplace. You also can’t get premium tax credits or other income-based savings on a private plan.
• Important to know: For help finding private insurance outside of the ACA’s Open Enrollment, check out the federal government’s finder.healthcare.gov. This site will help you explore private insurance options outside the ACA Marketplace.
2. Government programs for low-income individuals and families
There are support systems in place for you and your family, and many have been adjusted to reflect the sweeping effects of COVID-19. If you apply for a plan on the Marketplace at healthcare.gov, you’ll also find out if you’re eligible for Medicaid and CHIP in your state. The site will alert your state agency if you’re eligible and tell you how to get the benefits.
Medicaid gives free or low-cost coverage to people with limited incomes, families and children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and more. Household size and estimated household income determines eligibility for the year.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, several states have expanded or made additions to their Medicaid coverage. So even if you’ve applied before and been denied, you might be eligible now.
To find out if you’re eligible, submit an application on the Marketplace or directly to your state’s Medicaid agency.
• Important to know: You can apply for and enroll in Medicaid any time of the year.
CHIP stands for Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP is ideal for families that need support but aren’t eligible for Medicaid because they earn too much money. Typically that means $50,000 or more per year for a family of four.
The coverage and eligibility needs vary by state, but CHIP offers free or low-cost insurance to kids and teens. They can get check-ups, immunizations, hospital care, emergency care, prescriptions, and more.
To find out if you’re eligible, submit an application on the Marketplace or call 1-800-318-2596.
• Important to know: You can apply for and enroll in CHIP any time of the year.
For a deeper dive about Medicaid and CHIP, read our article, “How to Apply for Medicaid or CHIP”
3. Getting healthcare in the meantime
You’re not alone in this, and you shouldn’t risk not getting care just because you’re uninsured at the moment.
Private health insurance is a relatively modern invention, still less than 100 years old. But despite its age, it’s hard to think about healthcare without it.
Still, when paying for some healthcare expenses, like prescriptions, sometimes it’s cheaper to skip insurance altogether.
In fact, a 2018 study by the University of Southern California, found that patients who paid for their prescriptions with insurance benefits, might have overpaid.
The study defined an overpayment as any patient copayment that exceeded the average reimbursement paid by the insurer by more than $2. Among those claims, patients paid an average of $7.69 more than the reimbursement would have covered.
Or, as Consumer Reports noted:
“A growing number of medical services, from MRIs to blood work to outpatient surgery, could cost you less — sometimes a lot less — if you pay the provider out of your own pocket and leave your insurer out of the picture.”
Outside of prescriptions, the publication also found that patients can often find cheaper fees by skipping insurance for the following:
- Diagnostic procedures, such as CAT scans, X-rays and ultrasounds
- Some lab work
- Out-patient surgeries
- Therapeutic services, such as physical therapy
Outside of this option, there are also government initiatives reaching out to help, like the emergency stimulus act, federal health centers, state resources and free COVID-19 testing.
Free health services
Some states offer free clinics that give care to those without health insurance, limited health insurance and those who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. You can also find federally qualified health centers by state that offer COVID-19 testing and services. These health centers offer care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay — often charging for services on a sliding scale.
Healthcare if you’re uninsured
You’ll have to pay for your services. But the federal emergency funding bills included help for hospitals who were expecting a wave of uninsured patients amid the pandemic.
“While people who are uninsured might still receive bills from providers, the stimulus bill will help reduce the burden on patients because the hospitals will be compensated at least partially for their costs,” said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.
Don’t be shy. Ask about the cost of services to you before you get the care you need.
For furloughed workers
Washington’s rescue package aims to make sure furloughed workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. Hopefully, the package encourages businesses to keep workers on their health insurance plans if possible.
That’s not the case for all furloughed workers, though.
If you’re furloughed and lost your health insurance coverage, you could enroll in COBRA (where you pay out of pocket to keep your old benefits). Or you could apply for a subsidized plan on the ACA Marketplace.
Find out how to get free healthcare services when you're uninsuredLearn More
Jackie Mantey is an award-winning journalist and copywriter based in Chicago. Jackie has written and edited for a wide range of industries and clients, including Express, Thomson Reuters UK, Adobe XD, Cornell and many more.
Julian Dassai is an illustrator, cartoonist and musician from Athens, Greece. Currently an Adjunct Instructor of Illustration at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Julian also has taught workshops in comic book writing and drawing for the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Billy Ireland Cartoon Research Library, Otterbein University, The Pomerene Center for the Arts and Columbus Public Schools. He’s worked in a variety of graphic arts, including magazine illustration, cartooning and album design.
 “Eligibility for ACA Health Coverage Following Job Loss,” Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020
 “Unemployed and uninsured guide,” Healthcare.gov, 2020
 “A Short History of American Medical Insurance,” Hillsdale College, September 2018
 “Health insurance deductibles soar, leaving Americans with unaffordable bills,” Los Angeles Times, 2019
 “Coronavirus reset: How to get health insurance now,” NPR, 2020
This article was last updated July 21, 2020