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Hey, COVID-19 Long-Haulers: Take Care In Shopping For Health Insurance

Headaches, lung issues and ongoing, debilitating fatigue are just a few of the symptoms plaguing some "long hauler" COVID-19 patients for months or more after the initial fever and acute symptoms recede.
Grace Cary
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Headaches, lung issues and ongoing, debilitating fatigue are just a few of the symptoms plaguing some "long hauler" COVID-19 patients for months or more after the initial fever and acute symptoms recede.

People buying their own health insurance have even more to think about this year, particularly those post-COVID-19 patients with lingering health concerns — the "long-haulers," who join the club of Americans with preexisting conditions.

What type of plan is best for someone with an unpredictable, ongoing medical concern? That question is popping up on online chat sites dedicated to long-haulers and among people reaching out for assistance in selecting insurance coverage.

"We are hearing from a lot of people who have had COVID-19 and want to be able to deal with the long-term effects they are still suffering," says Mark Van Arnam, director of the North Carolina Navigator Consortium, a group of organizations that offer free help to state residents enrolling in insurance.

The good news for those shopping for their own coverage is that the Affordable Care Act bars insurers from discriminating against people with medical conditions or charging them more than healthier policyholders. Former COVID-19 patients could face a range of physical or mental effects, including lung damage, heart or neurological concerns, anxiety and depression. Although some of these issues will dissipate with time, others may turn out to be long-standing problems.

So sign up, say Van Arnam and others to whom KHN reached out for tips on what people with post-COVID-19 should consider when selecting coverage. There's no one-size-fits-all answer, they say; all emphasize the need to consider a wide range of factors.

But don't delay. Open enrollment in ACA plans is ongoing until Dec. 15 in most states — longer in some of the 14 states and the District of Columbia that run their own marketplaces.

Here are tips if you are shopping for health insurance, especially if you are a COVID-19 long hauler or have other health issues:

Make sure to select an ACA-qualified plan

It may be tempting to consider other, often far cheaper types of coverage offered by insurers, brokers, organizations and private websites. But those non-ACA plans offer less comprehensive coverage — and are not eligible for federal subsidies that help people who qualify cover the cost of the premiums. These are key factors for patients experiencing medical problems after battling the coronavirus.

Short-term, limited-duration plans, for example — which are not sold on the Affordable Care Act exchangesare cheaper, but the insurers offering them don't have to accept people with preexisting conditions (or, if they do enroll those people, the plans don't cover the members' medical conditions). Many short-term plans don't cover benefits such as prescription drugs or mental health care.

Another type of plan that doesn't meet ACA requirements are "sharing ministries," in which members agree to pay one another's medical bills. But such payments aren't guaranteed — and many such plans don't cover any condition they consider preexisting.

Shop around to consider all the ACA plans available in your region.

This will help you meet your post-COVID-19 medical needs while also getting the best buy.

Comparison-shopping also lets consumers adjust their income information, which may have changed from last year, especially if they've been very sick, and could affect subsidy levels for those eligible for assistance in purchasing a plan.

Under the ACA, subsidies to offset premium costs are available on a sliding scale for people who earn between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level. That range next year is $12,760 to $51,040 for an individual and $26,200 to $104,800 for a family of four.

Networks matter. Look for your doctor or hospital in the plan

One of the first things to do once you've narrowed down your choices of plans is to dig deeper to see if the doctors, specialists and hospitals you use are included in those plans' networks. Also, check plan formularies to see if the prescription medications you take are covered.

Many insurance plans don't have out-of-network benefits, except for emergency care. That means if a doctor or hospital doesn't participate in the network, consumers must switch medical providers or risk huge bills by receiving out-of-network care. This should be a concern for long haulers.

This subset of COVID-19 patients who report lingering health concerns may need to see a range of specialists, including pulmonologists, cardiologists, neurologists, rheumatologists and mental health professionals.

"So, you are already talking about five or six," says Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association.

To check the network status of medical providers, go to the HealthCare.Gov website, which will direct you to your state site if you are in one of the 14 states (plus the District of Columbia) that run their own. Enter a ZIP code and some other information to start looking for available plans.

Narrow the search using the "add your medical providers" button on HealthCare.Gov, or check each plan's "provider directory" under plan documents to see which specific doctors and hospitals are included. To be safe, Sward says, call each office to make sure they are participating with that insurer next year.

Don't just look at premium costs: Deductibles also matter

Consumers must pay deductible amounts before the bulk of financial assistance kicks in. That can be a big hit, especially for those who need complex care all at once or who need very expensive prescription drugs. COVID-19 long haulers, as well as others with chronic health conditions, often fall into this category.

Median deductibles — meaning the mark at which half of health plans on the exchange cost more and half cost less — vary across the different "tiers" of ACA plans, hitting $6,992 for bronze plans; $4,879 for silver plans and $1,533 for gold plans, according to an analysis by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Generally, plans with higher deductibles have lower monthly premiums. But getting past the deductible is a challenge for many patients.

What's best for those with ongoing health conditions depends on individual circumstances.

"Balancing the deductibles and premiums is a really important consideration for consumers," says Laurie Whitsel, vice president of policy research and translation at the American Heart Association.

Those with ongoing health conditions need to carefully weigh the expected annual out-of-pocket costs for various health plans, given that they may well be moderate to high users of health services in 2021. HealthCare.Gov has a financial estimator tool that can help with the decision. Consumers can select whether they think they will have low, medium or high medical use next year to see the estimated total annual costs of each plan.

Frequent users of health services may discover that plans that initially seem least expensive, based solely on the premium or the deductible, may be costlier once all out-of-pocket factors are considered.

Finally, insurers in some markets are touting zero-deductible plans among their ACA offerings.

Instead of an annual deductible, such policies have higher copayment or coinsurance amounts each time a patient sees a doctor, gets a test or has surgery. Those can range from $50 to more than $1,000, depending on the visit, test or service provided. Still, for some costly services, those payments may amount to less than paying a deductible.

Broker John Dodd in Columbus, Ohio, said such plans appeal to some people who don't want to have to shell out thousands of dollars in deductible payments before their insurance picks up the bulk of medical costs.

Still, he cautioned that many of the zero-deductible plans do have what can be a sizable deductible — hundreds or even thousands of dollars — for brand-name prescription drugs.

Long haulers should weigh those factors carefully, as such zero-deductible plans may be more suited to those who don't expect to use a lot of medical care.

Read the fine print, because there are other costs

While plans may tout similar premiums, their dissimilar structures could affect how much a consumer will shell out in flat-dollar copayments or percentage coinsurance to see a doctor, pick up a prescription, get a blood test or spend the night in the hospital. This is, again, something long haulers should focus on.

These details are spelled out in the plan's "summary of benefits," a required document under the ACA, which can be found on healthcare.gov or insurers' websites.

Still, ACA plans limit how much a consumer must pay out-of-pocket for the year. For 2021 plans, the maximum is $8,550 for an individual or $17,100 for a family plan.

Ask for help

While services such as Van Arnam's navigator program in North Carolina have seen stiff budget cuts during the past few years, consumers there and in many other states still have access to online or phone help. HealthCare.Gov has a "find local help" button that can refer people by ZIP code to navigators, assisters and brokers.

Finally, those affected by COVID-19 who miss the open enrollment deadline can request an extension under rules that allow special enrollment for emergencies or disasters.

"It's not a guarantee and you have to telephone the call center and ask for it," says Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Still, she says, it's best to sign up before Dec. 15.

"Just get it done," Pollitz advises.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit, editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, and is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Copyright 2023 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit Kaiser Health News.

Julie Appleby