Affordable Health Insurance: ARPA Expansions

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) has put into place several temporary expansions to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions that can help Americans access health coverage at affordable prices. In general, these benefits apply to people who purchase health insurance in the Marketplace (created by the ACA) because they do not have an affordable option available through employment. The expansion has two dimensions: 1) more people are eligible for help paying the health insurance premiums for plans purchased in the Marketplace, AND 2) those who are eligible for help are now eligible for MORE help, so that their share of the monthly premium can be reduced.  People who are unemployed will especially benefit.

The Health Insurance Marketplace is now open for enrollment through August 15, so if this information makes you want to enroll in a plan OR change the plan you chose, you should be able to do so in the next few weeks. NOTE: The law took effect March 11. The agency in charge of the Health Insurance Marketplace expects to be ready to implement many of the changes on April 1. Suggestion: if you call or log in to the Marketplace in early April, ASK if the new rules are yet in place. It might be worth waiting a week or two in order to be sure the changes have been built into the system.

More Help. The ACA created a maximum cost people would have to pay for health insurance premiums, stated as a % of your income. The ARPA dramatically reduced that percentage of income for 2021 and 2022.  For example, suppose you are a 2-person household with income of $43,000/year (which is just under 250% of the poverty level); under the ACA your share of the premium for a benchmark silver plan would have been 8% of your income; under the new ARPA guidelines, your share of the premium cost for that same silver plan is just 4% of your income. Implications:

  • Some people who previously decided health insurance was too expensive will NOW decide it is affordable under the new rules.
  • People who chose a less-expensive bronze plan despite its higher deductible and copays may NOW decide a silver plan is worthwhile.
    This is of special value to those who are at or below 250% of the federal poverty mark, because these folks are eligible for plans that sell for a “silver” price but have smaller deductibles and copays so that they are more like a gold or platinum plan. In other words, folks under the 250% level can get a premiere plan for a budget price.
    It’s sort of like getting a brand-new luxury SUV for the price of a 2014 compact sedan!
  • If you are already enrolled in a Marketplace plan, there is a good chance that your share of the monthly premium is reduced under the new rules. Consider contacting the Marketplace (800-318-2596) sometime later in April.

More People Eligible.  Under the original ACA rules, if your income was over 4 times the poverty level, you were not eligible for help paying for health insurance. Under the ARPA expansion, people of any income level are eligible if the cost of the Marketplace plan would exceed 8.5% of their income. This will be especially valuable for those in their 50’s and 60’s, since health insurance premiums rise with age. This provision is also in effect for 2021 and 2022. 
Implication: some people with incomes above the 400% threshold may have compromised to save money by purchasing health coverage that was poorer quality (that is, it does not meet the ACA standards related to broad coverage and value). With the new cap of 8.5% of income regardless of income level, these folks might now be able to purchase a high-quality plan for an affordable price.

Huge Benefit for Those Unemployed at ANY time during 2021.  Note: this benefit is ONLY in effect in 2021.  If you receive(d) Unemployment Income at ANY time during the 2021 calendar year, special rules apply for your eligibility. With regard to eligibility for help paying for health insurance in the Marketplace, any income above 133% of the poverty level will be disregarded. That means these households will be eligible for the “platinum-like” silver plans for FREE – the premiums will be entirely covered by the subsidy.  Note: all other qualifications must also be met. For example, if you have workplace coverage available that is considered affordable, then you will not be eligible for the free silver plan.  However, if you are unemployed now, take advantage of the free silver plan. If you get a new job in a couple months that provides insurance, you can then drop the silver plan.
For those whose incomes are below 100-133% of poverty, they will be eligible for Medicaid coverage (also free), even in states where Medicaid was not expanded.

COBRA Subsidy. For people who lost health coverage due to being laid off or having their work hours reduced, the government will cover the cost of their COBRA premiums for up to six months, from April 1 – September 30, 2021. Check with your employer about how this might help you. Even if you lost your job months ago and did not sign up for COBRA at that time, you should now be able to sign up for COBRA.
Note: if you are in this group, you might also benefit from Marketplace insurance or Medicaid, so be sure to evaluate all your options.

Primary Source: Kaiser Health News Details for the % of income (paragraph 3) from Kitces.com
For more information see: https://www.healthcare.gov/more-savings/

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Health Insurance Marketplace Reopens

Normally the health insurance marketplace is open just once a year in the fall (Nov 1 – Dec 15). This year, however, the government is opening the federally-run Marketplace today (February 15) for three months. Since Iowa uses the federal marketplace (www.healthcare.gov), this opportunity is available to Iowans. For readers in other states: many of the state-run health insurance marketplaces are also opening for the same three-month period.

Are you worried about choosing a health insurance policy? ISU Extension is offering a one-hour online workshop called “Smart Choice Basics” to help you understand key factors to consider when choosing a policy. The workshop is free, but pre-registration is required. Two options are available – choose the one that fits your schedule, and preregister today!

In the health insurance marketplace, Americans who do not have quality coverage available on the job can enroll in insurance plans that cover the ten essential benefits (including prescriptions, mental health care, rehabilitation, and more). In addition, you may qualify to get help paying the premiums, through the Premium Tax Credit. You may be eligible for a Premium Tax Credit if your income is below: $51,000 (single); $68,900 (couple); or $104,800 (family of four). Find out more at www.healthcare.gov. NOTE: if you are very near the income limit, you are eligible for only a small amount of help, but it does cap the percentage of your income you’ll need to pay for health insurance.

Keep in mind: You can always have a “special enrollment period” in the marketplace if you lose your insurance (e.g. leave your job, get divorced, or other reason). This new opportunity can be helpful for people who didn’t sign up when they could have, but have now decided that they need insurance after all.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Money Guidance via Podcast

graduates

Targeting those in college or planning for college, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently launched a podcast called Financial inTuition. The six episodes currently available are divided into two categories: three episodes focused on student loans, and three on basic money management skills with a focus on issues faced by students.

Each episode includes an interview with either an expert or a consumer with first-hand experience. It’s always helpful to learn from other people’s experience!

The podcast is available free wherever you get your podcasts, OR directly from the CFPB website. It is part of a broader set of resources targeting students and young adults on topics like paying for college (including information about student loans and the GI Bill), and money management information for economically-vulnerable consumers (which includes most young adults just starting out) on topics like building credit access and finding money to save. They also provide materials for both youth educators and adult educators.

Check out these resources for yourself OR share them with someone you care about!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Beware: Vaccine Scams

Like anything else that is new, the COVID vaccine is likely to be followed quickly by vaccine-related scams as well as misinformation. Likely scams to watch for:

  • Opportunities to “move higher on the list” by paying a fee. Truth: the vaccine roll-out is being carefully monitored, and there will be no way to get the vaccine quicker.
  • Any contact or news suggesting you pay a fee to receive the vaccine. Truth: due to the need to get as many people vaccinated as possible, you are likely to have no out-of-pocket cost when getting the vaccine.
  • Any contact asking for your social security number, bank account information or credit card number in order to schedule a vaccination. Truth: it is NEVER wise to give out personal or financial information when you did not initiate the contact.
  • Alternative “cures,” treatments,” or “preventives” for sale while you wait your turn for the vaccine. Truth: it is never wise to accept health advice or purchase health products from anyone other than a reputable health provider. Contact your own provider before purchasing any product or service.

Along with the potential for scams, the arrival of a vaccine creates opportunity for misinformation. Rely on trustworthy sources. For health information related to COVID-19, consult www.coronavirus.gov or www.coronavirus.iowa.gov. Both of these sites draw information directly from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other reputable sources.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Thinking Out Loud

If being careful with your money is important to you, and if you have children, then you are probably looking for ways to teach your children good money management skills. You probably also hope they will form values and priorities that are similar to yours.

Depending on the age of your children, you may have already learned that “preaching” (that is, telling them what to believe and do) is rarely the answer — if your children are still quite young, you may not have learned that yet, but you probably will! One strategy I learned when my children were young was that it paid to “think out loud”… to let them hear my thought process as I was making decisions.

The simplest examples would take place at the grocery store – decisions about which box of cereal to buy or which can of tomato sauce. If I spoke my thoughts aloud, they would be exposed to the ideas like: unit pricing (comparing price per ounce of different size packages); generic vs brand-name decisions (when it might be worth paying more, and when it might not be); and trade-offs (if I buy pork chops instead of beef steak, I can use the extra money for ice cream). Those are all assessments I make in my head when I shop alone, but when children are present it becomes a teaching opportunity if I say my thoughts aloud.

Similar “thinking out loud” situations could occur when buying clothing – they would be exposed to my thoughts on quality vs price, ease of cleaning (i.e. dry clean or hand wash vs machine wash) and other factors. I remember the purchase of a recliner where they saw me weighing options and they learned that we’re often unable to find the perfect product, so we have to decide what factors are most important to us.

Setting a good example is a powerful teaching strategy in everything from good manners to personal hygiene. With financial decisions, though, children won’t even be aware of what we’re doing unless we let them in on our thought processes. That’s where “thinking out loud” comes in – it makes them aware of why we make the decisions we make.

Money as You Grow: Resources for Parents and Caregivers is a wonderful resource from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for those seeking to help their children learn financial management skills.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Understanding Health Insurance

This time of year many Americans make health insurance decisions. If your health insurance comes through your employer, you may be making plan choices in the next month or so, and if you purchase insurance individually, open enrollment is November 1 through December 15. Are you equipped to make informed choices about your health insurance?

ISU Extension and Outreach offers two free on-line workshops on health insurance topics:

  • Smart Choice Basics focuses on the key things to know before you sign up for a specific health plan. It’s useful to people who get their insurance through their employer as well as to people who need to purchase insurance on their own. It also addresses questions about how to get help paying for health insurance via the HealthCare.gov Marketplace. It is being offered November 19 and December 1 (6 p.m. each day).
  • Smart Use: Smart Actions for Using your Health Insurance Wisely. This workshop focuses on seven key actions for consumers to take, including keeping track of the health care they receive, reviewing their bills carefully and disputing errors, understanding deductibles and co-pays, and more. It is being offered November 2 and December 8 (6 p.m. each day).

Understanding key health insurance principles can save you money year-round. It also gives you the confidence to ask useful questions about health costs and bills, and to make informed choices about when and where you receive the health care you need.

Pre-registration for the health insurance workshops is required.
Questions? Contact Barb Wollan or Brenda Schmitt. The flier is attached below if you’d like to share it with others.

These two workshops were developed by a team of experts from across the nation led by University of Maryland Extension. They are conducted locally by trained Iowa State University Extension and Outreach specialists.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Extra Utility Assistance Available to Iowans affected by COVID

Iowans who have experienced a COVID-related income loss any time since March 17, 2020 may be eligible for extra assistance with utility bills including electric, natural gas and water bills if they are at risk of disconnection. Many households whose incomes are above the regular guidelines for energy assistance may qualify for this help.

The Residential Utility Disruption Prevention Program went into effect about a week ago, with an application deadline of November 20, 2020.

Applicants must meet income guidelines (80% of median income, which is more generous than regular utility assistance), and must already have an unpaid utility bill. More eligibility details, as well as required documentation, are found at the program’s website.

You must apply on-line; if internet access is a problem, families are encouraged to get help from a trusted friend. A local Community Action Agency may also be able to help.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Managing Winter Heating Costs During the Pandemic

When prioritizing expenses, a major household bill is utilities (e.g., electricity, gas, water and sewer, landline and cell phone, and internet/cable). The highest utility cost is typically heating the home.

Plan for increasing home heating costs over the next six months. COVID-19 may increase these costs because many families are spending more time working and/or learning from home.

Average Iowa household utility expense of $2,580 varies widely according to the size of a home, climate, and utility usage patterns. Regardless of what you pay for utilities, there are ways to pay less. 

Step 1: Check Eligibility and Request Energy Assistance. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists households with a portion of the home heating bills, particularly those facing disconnection or who have trouble paying their utility bill. Early applications for LIHEAP started October 1 (for elderly and disabled applicants), with November 1-April 30 as the annual application timeframe through a local community action agency.

A general overview of the LIHEAP program is available in multiple languages.  Information on where to apply, through your local Community Action Agency, is found on the Iowa Department of Human Rights website. It is generally necessary to call ahead for an appointment.

Step 2: Ask for A Winter Moratorium. You may avoid a utility shut-off during the “winter moratorium” if you apply for and qualify for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

  • If you are certified eligible for LIHEAP, utilities cannot shut off your gas or electric services from November 1 through April 1.
  • You should try to pay as much as you can on your utility bills, even though you cannot be shut off, because the bills will come due in April. If you have made a good faith effort to pay throughout the winter, the utility company is more likely to work with you on a payment arrangement.

It is always best to keep making payments to the maximum extent possible during any period when your utility provider is prohibited from disconnecting your service. Making payments during the winter moratorium creates “good will” with the utility company (with whom you may be negotiating a payment plan) and also keeps the problem from getting worse.

Step 3: Manage Utility Bills

-Know How Much to Expect:  Ask your utility provider for how much the utility bill was last year for your home or apartment. Electric and Natural Gas average monthly costs start at $215 and go higher depending on the size of your home and weather conditions. Pay as much as you can afford monthly.

-Weatherize: Leaky or old windows can account for 10%-25% of heating costs due to warm air escaping. Replace windows with double-pane windows or installing storm windows. Get help from the Iowa Weatherization Assistance Program https://humanrights.iowa.gov/dcaa/weatherization

-Lower the Thermostat- Dial down the thermostat saves energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to 68°F while you’re awake and setting it lower while you’re asleep or away from home. Even one degree lower can make a difference.  Industry figures for every degree you turn down your thermostat (and leave it for 8 hours) you save between 1 and 3 percent of your heating bill.

To provide help in making decisions about bills and expenses, free financial consultations are available to all Iowa residents through ISU Extension and Outreach’s Human Sciences Specialists in Family Finance. We can help revise budgets, prioritize spending and link you to community resources. Find your local contact at our webpage or by contacting your County Extension Office.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Prioritizing Bills

What’s unique about the COVID-19 experience is the financial stress we’re also experiencing at the same time. My colleagues and I (all ISU Extension financial educators) are listening and learning from people facing financial challenges who contact us for unbiased information and ideas.

 “When the crisis hit, I was glad I knew how to pay attention to the most important bills. Obviously rent and groceries were our priority.”

What expenses should I pay in a time of crisis? Step One is to Separate your essential and non-essential expenses. Prioritize bills to keep you safe, help you survive and stay employed— they include: Food, medicine, rent or mortgage payments and utilities. Iowa Legal Aid recommends paying water and energy bills in full to avoid accumulating debt and facing potential utility service disconnection.

The second step is figuring out how much cash you must have to pay the essentials.  You’re responsible for paying all your expenses on time. When we don’t have enough to cover our needs consider building a short-term plan. This plan may involve paying some bills late and needs to consider the consequences of failing to pay certain bills.

Feeling more in control will be worth the time it takes to plan. Research shows that taking these steps builds financial confidence and reduces anxiety.

Establish a short-term plan and reduce the financial stress during these tough times by contacting an ISU Extension Family Finance Specialist near you to talk through ideas and find a place to start. You can also connect with your local educator by calling Iowa Concern 800-447-1985.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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