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Thousands of uninsured Kansans qualify for free health insurance with federal subsidies

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

The annual window has opened to enroll in insurance plans through Healthcare.gov. Got questions? Local health clinics employ navigators who can help.

In 2014, a man in his fifties showed up at GraceMed Health Clinic in Wichita, asking about his options for buying health insurance.

He hadn’t bothered with coverage before. The expense proved daunting for someone running his own business.

GraceMed employee Juven Nava recalls helping the man find coverage for a monthly premium of about $20 through Healthcare.gov.

“For such a long time, the one thing that he felt he could sacrifice was health insurance,” Nava said.

And now he finally had it.

“I told him … ‘Use it. Get everything checked out. You haven’t been to a doctor in forever.’”

So the self-employed man did just that. The checkups uncovered cancer, and he began treatment.

The experience stuck with Nava, who has helped people sign up for subsidized health insurance every year since.

This year, more uninsured Kansans qualify for financial aid than before the pandemic. It’s part of a coronavirus relief law that Congress passed in March.

About 260,000 Kansans don’t have health insurance. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in May that about 70,000 uninsured Kansans are eligible for free health plans through Healthcare.gov for 2022. Tens of thousands more can get discounted premiums, sometimes as low as $10 a month.

Because of the temporary pandemic-related changes, some people who earn more than four times the poverty level will find they qualify for subsidies.

On Monday, the annual enrollment period kicked off for people who want to buy health insurance through Healthcare.gov for 2022.

Enrollment continues until Jan. 15, but if you want your coverage to start on Jan. 1, you need to sign up no later than Dec. 15.

How can you get help exploring your options?

Nava leads a team of bilingual experts at GraceMed — about half a dozen navigators who’ll sit with you for free in Wichita or Topeka, talk about your options and answer every question you’ve wondered about insurance jargon.

Out-of-pocket maximums? Coinsurance? Bronze, silver and gold plans? It’s their job to make sense of it for you.

The next few months promise to be busy for the GraceMed team. Their work is in demand.

“We were already receiving calls a month ago ... trying to get on our navigator schedules,” Nava said. “So this week, it’s pretty packed.”

They meet with people one-on-one, in English or Spanish, and try to get to everyone. Sometimes they call on colleagues at other clinics to help. They can also point people to assistance in other languages.

If you want to talk to a navigator, Nava recommends checking for an expert near you, because meeting in person is valuable.

You can do that on the GetCoveredKansas website, run by a coalition of community clinics across Kansas that help people sign up for insurance.

Or you can call the coalition at (866) 826-8375 to ask questions or schedule an appointment that could take place in person, over the phone or by video conference.

Some Kansans have more insurance plans to pick from this year.

Healthcare.gov isn’t the only place you can buy insurance, but if you qualify for subsidies, you can only get that financial help by going through the official marketplace.

This year, seven companies are selling insurance to Kansans on Healthcare.gov, including local options like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas and national insurers like Cigna.

That’s more options than ever. It continues a dramatic trend over the past several years of increasing options:

  • 2019: Three insurers offered 23 plans across Kansas.
  • 2020: Five insurers offered 82 plans.
  • 2021: Six insurers offered 100 plans.
  • 2022: Seven insurers are offering 123 plans.

Still, choices vary by county. Most rural counties only have three insurance companies to choose from. More urban areas have more options.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.