Open up the health exchange during COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has done much in terms of laying bare some of the challenges we face in our health care system. One of those challenges is access to health care.

Idaho is the only state with a state-run health exchange that has yet to offer a special enrollment period in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been a move to waive some of the documentation requirements to make it easier for those who qualify for job loss to access the exchange, it’s not really the same thing as opening up the exchange.

The reality is that some Idahoans are finding themselves facing this pandemic — and a potential second wave in the coming weeks — without access to affordable health care. Maybe they don’t qualify because of their previous situation but could use it now. There are a number of reasons that someone might not be on the exchange right now, but, because of a change in circumstances related to the novel coronavirus, could be in dire need of a health care plan.

Indeed, noted health care policy analyst Charles Gaba estimates that between 4,200 and 5,600 Idahoans could need access, above and beyond those who have access to “waived documentation.” That’s not an insignificant number — especially when you consider that they might end up in an emergency room near you.

Not too long ago, Gov. Little said that such folks could sign up for what is known as “short-term, limited-duration” plans and that these could fill the gaps. It sounds good in theory, but those of us who write about consumers, money and health care (as I have been doing for 15 years) have another name for these plans. It’s not a polite name fit for printing in a family newspaper, so I’ll just call them “junk” plans.

Even the American Medical Association recognizes that these plans are inadequate and is trying to get the federal government — as well as state exchanges — to open special enrollment at this time. The AMA points out that these STLD plans may deny coverage based on existing conditions and may not cover prescription drug treatment or even COVID-19 testing and treatment.

As citizens, we fought for the passage of Proposition 2, believing that access to affordable health care is needed for all Idahoans. And, even though our efforts have borne fruit, there are still some gaping holes in health care access. Opening the exchange for a special period would help plug some of these holes. Our leaders need to step up and work on this type of solution.

On top of this, we need to remain vigilant and contact our legislators. Our so-called representatives in House District 33 fought against Prop. 2 and have even sided with efforts to hamstring it. They’re remarkably silent on the issue of reopening the health care exchange for a special enrollment as well. Is this the sort of representation we need? Or is it time for our so-called leaders to stop living in fear of a small number of special interests and start actually standing up for everyday Idahoans?