- What does this special enrollment period allow eligible applicants to do?
- Who is eligible for this SEP?
- This special enrollment period may or may not be permanent (but it continues through at least 2025).
- Does the SEP for individuals with income under 150% FPL apply in every state?
- What else do you need to know about eligibility for the SEP?
In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services finalized a new special enrollment period (SEP) in states that use HealthCare.gov (optional for other states), granting year-round enrollment in ACA-compliant health insurance if an applicant’s household income does not exceed 150% of the federal poverty level (FPL) and if the applicant is eligible for a premium tax credit (subsidy) that will cover the cost of the benchmark plan.
This SEP is currently slated to run through 2025 (or longer, if the American Rescue Plan’s subsidy enhancements are extended), but the government has proposed a rule change that would make it permanently available.1
The SEP became available on the HealthCare.gov website — and enhanced direct enrollment entity websites — as of March 21, 2022. Outside of the annual open enrollment period (November 1 through January 15), applicants need to select “find out if you can enroll/change” and then select the option that says “Medicaid, CHIP, or a new Special Enrollment Period based on income.” The pre-screener tool will then ask questions to determine whether the person/household’s income is in the eligible range. If so, the special enrollment period opportunity will allow them to proceed with the enrollment. Enhanced direct enrollment entities have similar enrollment pathways.
In finalizing this SEP, HHS noted it’s beneficial for low-income consumers to have additional enrollment opportunities, and that this is in keeping with the executive order to strengthen Medicaid and the ACA, signed by President Biden in January.
What does this new special enrollment period allow eligible applicants to do?
Under the new special enrollment period, eligible applicants can enroll in an ACA-compliant health plan through the Marketplace at any time during the year. Coverage will take effect on the first of the following month.
(If a state-run exchange chooses to offer this SEP, they can use that same approach or choose to have a deadline of the 15th of the month for coverage to start the first of the following month. As of 2022, HealthCare.gov allows all SEP enrollments to have coverage effective the first of the following month, regardless of the application date. For 2025 and future years, the federal government has proposed a rule change that would require state-run exchanges to also allow coverage to take effect the first of the month following enrollment, for any available special enrollment period.1)
This special enrollment period does not have limitations on how often it can be used, or the type of health plan that can be selected. But people with income up to 150% of the poverty level are strongly encouraged to select a Silver plan. At that income level, Silver plans have built-in cost-sharing reductions that make the coverage better than a Platinum plan. And for as long as the American Rescue Plan’s subsidy enhancements are in effect — at least through the end of 2025, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act — the two lowest-cost Silver plans are premium-free (in most states) for applicants with income up to 150% of the poverty level.
A person with an eligible household income who is already enrolled in an exchange plan can use this SEP to pick a different plan, although deductible and out-of-pocket spending would reset to $0 for the year when the new plan starts. (State-run exchanges can choose to limit this SEP only to people who aren’t already enrolled, or to make it available to both new and current enrollees.)
However, the new rules do clarify that if a current enrollee is adding a dependent to their plan, they can either add the dependent to the existing plan, or switch to a Silver level plan and enroll the new dependent in that plan. But the SEP cannot be used to switch the current enrollee to a non-Silver plan together with the new dependent.
Who is eligible for this special enrollment period?
To be eligible for this SEP, an applicant’s household income cannot exceed 150% of the federal poverty level. For a single person enrolling in coverage for 2024 in the continental U.S., 150% of the poverty level amounts to an income of no more than $21,870. For a household of five, it’s $52,710. (Note that the person’s projected income for 2024 is compared with the 2023 poverty level guidelines; also note that the poverty levels are higher in Alaska and Hawaii2).
You have to be eligible for premium tax credits to take advantage of this SEP. So regardless of income, the SEP is not available to a person who is eligible for Medicaid, premium-free Medicare Part A,3 or an employer-sponsored health plan that provides minimum value and is considered affordable. The SEP is also not available to people in the coverage gap (which still exists in nine states as of early 2024), because they are not eligible for premium tax credits.
As described in more detail below, only a small segment of the population is eligible for this SEP in states that have expanded Medicaid, due to the very narrow range between 138% of the current year’s poverty level (for Medicaid eligibility) and 150% of the prior year’s poverty level.
This SEP is also only available on-exchange, since premium tax credits aren’t available outside the exchange.
(Note that to get on-exchange coverage, you can enroll directly through the exchange, or an enhanced direct enrollment website, or with the help of an agent or broker. If you have questions, you can call (866) 553-3223 to speak with one of our licensed agents.)
This special enrollment period may or may not be permanent, but will continue through at least 2025
This special enrollment period is fairly unique in that it may or may not be permanent. HHS has clarified that the new SEP is only available for as long as people at this income level are eligible for premium-free benchmark plans, but has since proposed a rule change that would make the SEP permanent.1
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) enhanced premium tax credits (subsidies) for 2021 and 2022, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) extended the enhanced subsidies through 2025. Under the ARP/IRA, people with income up to 150% of the poverty level do not have to pay premiums for the benchmark plan. (In some states, these plans still cost a dollar or two, due to additional state-mandated benefits.)
If the ARP-style subsidy enhancements are allowed to expire at the end of 2025, this SEP will also cease to be available at that point, under current rules. But HHS has proposed a rule change, effective in 2025, that would make the low-income SEP permanent, regardless of whether the ARP subsidy enhancements are extended or not.1 And if Congress enacts additional legislation to further extend the ARP-style subsidy enhancements, the SEP would also continue to be available, regardless of whether HHS finalizes the proposed rule change.[/hio_question]
How do I prove my eligibility for this SEP?
To gain access to this SEP in the federally run Marketplace (HealthCare.gov), you just have to attest to the fact that your income is in the eligible range.
If the income information the government has on file doesn’t match the income the applicant has projected, the exchange may request proof of the projected income to ensure that it is no more than 150% of the poverty level.
If an applicant does not provide proof, the federally run Marketplace can terminate the premium tax credit that’s being paid on the enrollee’s behalf, meaning that the person would then be paying full price for their coverage (or will simply find coverage terminated when they fail to pay the full premium in the first month it’s required).
Does the SEP for individuals with income under 150% FPL apply in every state?
State-run exchanges (there are 19 as of the 2024 plan year) are not required to offer this SEP. But most of them have chosen to do so. As of 2023, it appears that the only state-run exchanges that don’t offer this SEP are in Idaho, Maryland, and Nevada.
Most of the state-run exchanges use the 150% FPL income limit for this SEP. But some state-run exchanges that offer additional state-funded subsidies have chosen to offer this SEP at higher income levels, generally because their state-funded subsidies result in premium-free benchmark plans at income levels above 150% of the poverty level. They include:
- New Jersey: SEP available up to 200% FPL
- New Mexico: SEP available up to 200% FPL
- Vermont: SEP available up to 200% FPL
- Washington: SEP available up to 250% FPL
Several other state-run exchanges have little or no need for this SEP, because they have other programs with year-round availability. This includes:
- New York and Minnesota, both of which have Basic Health Programs that offer year-round enrollment for people with income up to 200% of FPL.
- Massachusetts, which offers Connector Care to people with income up to 300% of FPL (enrollment is open year-round to people who are newly eligible or who have not been covered under the program in the past; the year-round SEP is available to ConnectorCare enrollees with income up to 150% FPL, even if they’re not newly-eligible and/or have previously been covered under the program).
- Washington, DC, which offers Medicaid to adults with income up to 215% FPL.
- Connecticut, which offers Covered Connecticut to adults with income up to 175% FPL.
The rest of the state-run exchanges offer the SEP on the same terms as HealthCare.gov, available to people who are subsidy-eligible and whose projected household income doesn’t exceed 150% of the prior year’s poverty level. That includes California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
State-run exchanges have flexibility in terms of how they implement this SEP. Some require proof of income to trigger the SEP, while others choose to follow the federal government’s lead and allow the SEP eligibility to be based on the income attested by the consumer.
What else do you need to know about eligibility for the SEP?
Although access to this SEP is largely based on income, there are several points to keep in mind:
- In most states, there is a fairly narrow income window for eligibility for this SEP, since Medicaid is available to adults in most of the country with income up to 138% of the poverty level. So this SEP would only be available to applicants with income above 138% of the poverty level, but not more than 150% of the poverty level. (Note that Medicaid enrollment, for both adults and children, is always available year-round.) By March or April each year, states switch over to using the updated federal poverty level numbers for Medicaid eligibility, although they continue to use the prior year’s poverty level numbers to determine subsidy eligibility and eligibility for the low-income SEP. So for most of 2023, a single person in a state that has expanded Medicaid in the continental U.S. was only be eligible for this SEP if their income was above $20,120 but not more than $20,385. (Those numbers are 138% of the 2023 FPL, and 150% of the 2022 FPL, respectively. The specifics change each year, due to changes in the FPL numbers.)
- In the ten states where Medicaid has not been expanded, this SEP is available to households with income between 100% and 150% of the prior year’s poverty level. So for 2024 coverage, that means an income between $14,580 and $21,870 for a single adult.2 (There’s a coverage gap in nine of those states for many adults with income below the poverty level, and this SEP does not change that.)
- Recent immigrants (who aren’t eligible for Medicaid due to their new immigrant status) can qualify for this SEP with income between 0% and 150% of the prior year’s poverty level.
Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health Marketplace updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.
- Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, HHS Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2025; Updating Section 1332 Waiver Public Notice Procedures; Medicaid; Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan (CO-OP) Program; and Basic Health Program. U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. November 2023.
- 2023 Poverty Guidelines. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed January 2024.
- Medicare and the Marketplace, Master FAQ. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Accessed November 2023.