Chapter 7: Special Enrollment Guide

Citizenship status can deliver coverage

Becoming a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawfully present resident is a qualifying event that triggers a 60-day special enrollment period

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  • February 1, 2017

The Insider's Guide to Obamacare's Special EnrollmentBecoming a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawfully present resident is a qualifying event that triggers a 60-day special enrollment period in the exchanges. Coverage effective dates follow the normal effective date rules, which means that in most states, enrollments completed by the 15th of the month will have coverage effective the first day of the following month.

Unlike the other qualifying events, this one only applies if you’re enrolling through the exchange. Off-exchange, carriers can allow this special enrollment period or not – it’s at their discretion.

Read more about how immigrants are getting health coverage in the United States and through Obamacare.

Becoming a U.S. citizen

Becoming a U.S. citizen involves successfully completing the naturalization process. Once you gain citizenship, you’ve got 60 days to enroll in a plan through the exchange, and regular effective date guidelines apply.

In Connecticut, the exchange has been reaching out to new citizens, sending exchange representatives to the U.S. District Courts on the days that naturalization ceremonies are held. This ensures that new citizens are aware of the opportunity to enroll in a health plan. Connecticut was the first state to provide this level of outreach, but newly naturalized citizens in every state have access to a special enrollment period through the exchange.

Becoming a U.S. national

All U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals, but the reverse is not necessarily true. People born in American Samoa – including Swains Island – are U.S. nationals, but are not U.S. citizens unless they move to a U.S. state for at least three months and then go through the naturalization process.

People born in the Northern Mariana Islands are granted U.S. citizenship, but can elect instead to be non-citizen U.S. nationals. People born in the other U.S. territories – Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands – are U.S. citizens.

Most of the ACA’s provisions do not apply in the U.S. territories. (This is a reversal of the position that HHS took in 2013, when they said that the ACA would apply in the territories.) Still, plans sold in the territories cannot have annual or lifetime benefit maximums, and must cover preventive care with no cost-sharing.

None of the territories have established their own exchanges, and does not offer plans in the territories. The annual open enrollment period does not apply in the territories, since the ACA’s requirement that health plans be guaranteed-issue is not applicable in the territories.

So it’s important to note that new U.S. nationals are eligible for a SEP, but they have to move to a U.S. state in order to take advantage of it, since that’s where ACA-compliant plans are offered.

Medicare and Medicaid are available to eligible residents, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) website has resource pages for people in the territories. There are also health insurance programs run by the territorial governments.

Becoming a lawfully present resident

There are a wide range of immigration statuses that qualify as “lawfully present.” Lawfully present U.S. residents can enroll in health plans through the exchange, and have a special enrollment period that runs for 60 days from the date that they gain lawfully present resident status in the U.S.

Under Section 36B(c)(1)(B) of the ACA, lawfully present residents with income below 100 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for premium subsidies in the exchange if they are not eligible for Medicaid as a result of their immigration status. (Lawfully present residents generally have a five-year waiting period before they can be eligible for Medicaid, although some states use state funds to provide Medicaid coverage to lawfully present residents who have not met the five-year waiting period requirement).

For background, premium subsidies in the exchanges are otherwise only available if the applicant is not eligible for Medicaid and has an income above 100 percent of the poverty level. Congress added the provision allowing subsidies for lawfully present residents with income below 100 percent of the poverty level because they would otherwise have been shut out of coverage altogether (they’re not yet eligible for Medicaid, and have income too low for subsidies).

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not be obligated to implement the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and as a result, there are 19 states where Medicaid has not been expanded. In those states, there are more than 2.6 million people in the coverage gap, with no realistic access to health insurance. Their incomes are below 100 percent the poverty level, so they’re not eligible for subsidies. And their states have not expanded Medicaid, so they’re not eligible for Medicaid either.

Ironically, it was this exact sort of situation that Congress was trying to prevent – in the case of lawfully present residents who hadn’t been in the U.S. long enough to qualify for Medicaid – when they included Section 36B(c)(1)(B) in the ACA. But they had no idea that the Supreme Court would issue a ruling a few years later that would ultimately throw millions of U.S. citizens into the same sort of health insurance gap.