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Coronavirus prompts special health insurance enrollment period. If you don’t have coverage, now is the time to get it | COMMENTARY

The cost to treat coronavirus may be out of reach for many Marylanders without insurance.
The cost to treat coronavirus may be out of reach for many Marylanders without insurance.(Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

If you don’t have health insurance, now is the time to get it.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages, a special enrollment period has been set aside for Marylanders to sign up for health plans. People have until Apr. 15 to get coverage through a private plan. Low income residents can sign up for Medicaid at any time.

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There are about 400,000 people without insurance, according to The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, which manages enrollment for people who don’t get insurance through their employer or a government program. The exchange was created under the federal Affordable Care Act a decade ago, established to make insurance available to more Americans.

Anyone could be struck with a health issue at any time. That’s never been more evident than now, in a pandemic that public health experts don’t know how long will last. Nobody is immune from contracting the potentially fatal and easily transmitted respiratory disease. A vaccine to treat it is months away from development. Hundreds of Marylanders already have been confirmed to have the virus, and many more are walking around with it and don’t know.

What more reason do you need to sign up for a plan pronto at Maryland Health Connection, the health plan marketplace?

Early estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are that 160 million to 214 million people in the United States could become infected, and 200,000 to 1.7 million could die. While some people will recover at home with no complications, as many as 2.4 million to 21 million people will need prolonged treatment at a hospital. And the cost is not cheap.

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered an emergency directive that made coronavirus testing free for Marylanders. Treatment is a different story.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, using pneumonia hospitalizations as a gauge, found inpatient treatment of coronavirus could run more than $20,000. People with insurance would face out-of-pocket costs of about $1,300. Of course, this all depends on the details of people’s insurance plans as well.

For those who don’t have insurance, the potential cost is enough to send many families into bankruptcy. The risks are too high for people to try to ride out the pandemic with no coverage and wishful thinking.

People with chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart problems should have insurance to help with their existing medical conditions. But those who don’t should know this: Coronavirus is even more dangerous for people with existing health problems, because they have a harder time fighting off infections and viruses than healthier people. Doctors are warning that people must get these conditions under control or risk complications and increased odds of death if they do contract coronavirus.

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Many people without insurance may not even know they have a pre-existing illness and are putting themselves at increased risk. Simply put: Now is not the time to take one’s health for granted.

People worried about the financial pressures coronavirus has created may be reluctant to pay for insurance. But it’s better to take the financial hit now then to face a massive medical bill down the road. At the very least people should price out plans. It might be more affordable than people think. Nine out of 10 Marylanders who get coverage on the exchange qualify for financial help. Many others may qualify for Medicaid, which generally covers single people with no children with an annual income of $17,620 or less, or a family of four who makes $36,167 or less a year.

“We do know that people can get very very ill very quickly and the level of treatment can be very significant,” said Michele Eberle, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. “If somebody does not have health insurance and has to bear that financial risk on their own, that is another layer of concern to put on a family.”

Marylanders can enroll at MarylandHealthConnection.gov or download the free “Enroll MHC” mobile app. Free assistance is also available by phone: 1-855-642-8572 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Since special enrollment began a week ago on Mar. 16, around 5,000 people have signed up for coverage. That leaves hundreds of thousands more who are vulnerable.

The coronavirus pandemic is stressful for many of us without the extra burden of an unaffordable medical bill. No one knows who will get the virus. Don’t take the chance of being one of the lucky ones. It’s not worth the risk.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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