Biden opens 'Obamacare' window for uninsured as COVID rages

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President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders on health care, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered government health insurance markets to reopen for a special sign-up window, offering uninsured Americans a haven as the spread of COVID-19 remains dangerously high and vaccines aren't yet widely available.

Biden signed an executive order directing the HealthCare.gov insurance markets to take new applications for subsidized benefits, something Donald Trump's administration had refused to do. He also instructed his administration to consider reversing other Trump health care policies, including curbs on abortion counseling and the imposition of work requirements for low-income people getting Medicaid.

“There’s nothing new that we’re doing here other than restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring Medicaid to the way it was before Trump became president,” Biden said as he signed the directives in the Oval Office. He declared he was reversing “my predecessor’s attack on women’s health."

The actions were only the first steps by Biden, who has promised to build out former President Barack Obama’s health care law to achieve a goal of coverage for all. While Biden rejects the idea of a government-run system that Sen. Bernie Sanders has pushed for in his “Medicare for All” proposal, his more centrist approach will require congressional buy-in. But opposition to “Obamacare” runs deep among Republicans.

The most concrete short-term impact of Biden's orders will come from reopening HealthCare.gov insurance markets as coverage has shrunk in the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. That's an executive action and no legislation is required.

The new “special enrollment period” will begin Feb. 15 and run through May 15, the White House said. It will be coupled with a promotional campaign and a call for states that run their own insurance markets to match the federal sign-up opportunity.

The Biden administration has ample resources for marketing, said Karen Pollitz, a health insurance expert with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation estimates that the Trump administration left unspent about $1.2 billion in user fees collected from insurers to help pay for running the marketplaces.

“The reason it wasn’t spent is the Trump administration spent its time in office cutting services that support consumer enrollment,” Pollitz said. “All the while the user fee revenue was coming in, (but) they were not allowed to spend it on anything other than marketplace operations.”