That huge COVID rescue package President Joe Biden signed back in March — the same law that provided $1,400 stimulus checks and the new monthly payments for families — is currently offering free health insurance to millions of Americans, through the end of 2021.
But consumers don't have much time to sign up, because the window is closing soon, administration officials point out.
The stimulus benefit's zero-premium health care plans have been available for the last month or so, and there are no income limits to qualify. But you must meet one big eligibility requirement.
Get free health care for claiming unemployment this year
If you've received or have been approved for unemployment benefits during 2021, you qualify for free health coverage through the remainder of the year via HealthCare.gov. That's the marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare.
Middle-of-the-pack "silver" plans (not high-end, but not low-end either) with $0 monthly premiums made their debut July 1 as part of the program. By comparison, this year's typical Obamacare premium is $452 a month, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.
The health plans in the free offer are provided by private insurers, and they come with low or even no copayments or deductibles.
"We are doing everything we can to remove financial barriers to comprehensive health care," says Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, in a statement. Brooks-LaSure's agency runs HealthCare.gov.
Given that unemployment has remained high this year as the pandemic has held on, the field of Americans who might potentially take advantage of the free health care is massive. Right now, nearly 3.3 million people are on unemployment, the government reported last Thursday.
Biden's pandemic aid bill has given other relief to unemployed Americans, including beefed-up jobless benefits through early September (though at least half the states have opted out early) and a tax break on unemployment payments that has resulted in surprise tax refunds for millions.
Free insurance cutoff is coming
If you're uninsured and have received unemployment compensation at any time this year (even for just one week), you can enter that information at HealthCare.gov, then shop for a free plan on the site and sign up.
But you must get your application in by Aug. 15, when the current special enrollment period ends, Biden administration officials say.
The stimulus law says your income will not be taken into account; normally there are earnings limits to qualify for Obamacare coverage. But note that you're typically not eligible if you can get insurance from an employer — either yours or your spouse's — or through Medicare or Medicaid.
Though the free coverage tied to unemployment benefits will run out in December, the president's American Rescue Plan is providing broad, reduced-cost coverage at least through 2022. So you may decide you'll want to stick with Obamacare after this year.
HealthCare.gov enrollees are now paying no more than 8.5% of their incomes on their health insurance, down from the previous 10% ceiling. And, generally speaking, anyone making over $51,000 is now saving an additional $1,000 a month, according to the administration.
More than 2 million Americans have signed up for marketplace plans during the special enrollment, which opened on Feb. 15. Of that number, 1.2 million have chosen plans costing $10 or less per month, thanks to the stimulus discounts, says the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
If you can't get free insurance but need relief
If you don't qualify for the free coverage and are being squeezed by high health insurance costs, you might still shop around to look for a cheaper health plan. Then, you'll want to try some other money-saving strategies to offset your premiums:
Cut the cost of homeownership. If you’re a homeowner and haven't refinanced during the past year of ultra-low interest rates, you could be missing out. Rates have recently tumbled back toward their all-time lows and offer opportunities to save hundreds of dollars per month and thousands over time. You also may want to check whether you can score a better deal on homeowners insurance.
Dominate your debt. Credit cards have been a life-saver for many Americans during the pandemic, but their high interest can wreck your finances for years. Rolling your balances into a lower-interest debt consolidation loan will help you pay off your debts more quickly and affordably.
Get serious about saving. If your budget is stretched to the point of snapping, put a stop to any needless spending. Cancel monthly subscriptions you're not using, and go to the grocery store with a list you'll stick to. Whenever you shop online, use a free browser add-on that automatically hunts for better prices and coupons.
Invest, because you can afford it. You don't have to be rich to profit from today’s soaring stock market. A popular app allows you to invest in a diversified portfolio using nothing more than "spare change" from day-to-day purchases.