Biden Plans to Open Obamacare for Pandemic-Stricken Americans

President Joe Biden will make it easier for Americans to buy health insurance during the pandemic, reopening the federal Obamacare marketplace with an order Thursday that’s a step toward reinvigorating a program his predecessor tried to eliminate.

Another directive Biden will issue Thursday will immediately rescind the so-called Mexico City Policy, which prohibits international non-profits from receiving U.S. funding if they provide abortion counseling or referrals.

The Obamacare executive order will create a special enrollment period for plans sold in the federal market from Feb. 15 to May 15, offering a path to health care for people who’ve found themselves without insurance coverage after losing their jobs. The order also directs agencies to look for ways to strengthen Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income people, and the Affordable Care Act more broadly.

The long-expected executive orders build off more than two dozen executive actions Biden has already signed during his first week in office.

“As we continue to battle Covid-19, it is even more critical that Americans have meaningful access to affordable care,” the White House said in a statement. “Reliable and affordable access to health insurance doesn’t just benefit families’ health; it is a critical source of economic security and peace of mind for all.”

Democrats, the health insurance industry and advocates for the Affordable Care Act had repeatedly asked the Trump administration over the last several months to reopen enrollment, which is normally restricted to a few weeks in the fall. They were refused.

The Trump administration argued that people who lost their coverage in the pandemic could sign up for Obamacare plans using individual special enrollment periods. Requests for special enrollment have spiked, but the process is more complicated than open enrollment because it requires applicants to prove their eligibility. It’s also not available to people who’ve been uninsured for an extended period of time.

The new enrollment period Biden is creating will be available to “Americans that need health care coverage,” according to the statement, which did not say whether there would be restrictions.

Enrollment in plans sold by marketplaces set up under the Affordable Care Act declined slightly under President Donald Trump, who cut funding for the program’s marketing and outreach after promising to repeal the law.

“President Biden has an opportunity to show that can work in concert with the 15 State-based Marketplaces to offer a critical safety net for those left uninsured by the pandemic,” said Joel Ario of Manatt Health, who was also the first director of

Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed in Congress, and the insurance marketplaces it created continued to enroll millions of people during his presidency. He occasionally claimed credit for lowering premiums for plans sold on the exchanges.

About 8.3 million people enrolled last fall using portal, about the same number as the year before even though two states — Pennsylvania and New Jersey — exited the federal marketplace to run their own, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

For states using, the official window to enroll in coverage for 2021 closed on Dec. 15. Opening a new enrollment period, combined with more robust efforts to reach the uninsured, could bolster enrollment significantly: 4 million people who are currently uninsured qualify for a fully subsidized low-level plan with zero premiums, according to a newanalysis from KFF.

Another 4.9 million are eligible for partial subsidies, the group estimates.

Health insurers are looking forward to a possible lift for the marketplaces, after they sometimes struggled to attract new customers.

“The new administration certainly looks like they’re going to promote” the ACA business, said Pete Haytaian, who leads the commercial and specialty business at health insurerAnthem Inc.

“We just heard this week that we’ll likely see an extension to open enrollment or special enrollment periods throughout the year,” Haytaian told Wall Street analysts on an earnings call Wednesday. “With the new administration, I think there is an opportunity for further growth there.”

Most of the 15 Obamacare marketplaces operated by states extended their open enrollment periods as a result of the pandemic. Those states saw a surge of new applicants — particularly among people in their 20s — suggesting that Americans who once chose to go without coverage are reconsidering, given the risk of coronavirus infection.

The Mexico City Policy that Biden will rescind on Thursday flip-flops depending on which party holds the White House. It was reimposed by Trump when he took office, after President Barack Obama had also rescinded it.

A Biden memo ending the policy will also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to consider rescinding unspecified regulations governing grants to family planning organizations, according to the White House statement. The Trump administration enacted regulations that prohibit family planning groups receiving the grants from referring women for abortions or physically sharing space with abortion providers.

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