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K-State Research and Extension
123 Umberger Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-3401

May 19, 2020

Extension Agents Helping Kansans with Health Insurance Questions

Submitted by Pat Melgares

News reports that nearly 27 million Americans have lost their employer-based health insurance due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left many scrambling to secure coverage for themselves and their families.

For many of those, however, there is hope.

Joy Miller, a family resource management agent in K-State Research and Extension’s Southwind District, says Kansans – and all Americans – often have a window of opportunity to sign up for health insurance following the loss of a job.

“The important thing,” she said, “is to not stall or avoid the situation.”

Miller is one of several dozen Kansas Extension agents who routinely help citizens with their health insurance questions through the program, Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas, or SHICK. The program was created by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

“Costs, options, assistance programs and understanding all of the rules and regulations…all of that is confusing no matter what age you might be,” Miller said. “Younger, healthier people may take the risk of not having insurance for a time, but for those who are older and need regular medical care, it may not be comfortable or affordable to go without.”

On May 13, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation released results of a study indicating that nearly 78 million Americans live in a family in which someone lost a job between March 1 and May 1, and approximately 47.5 million (61%) of those people were covered by employee-supported insurance.

In many cases, those who lose a job may qualify for a special enrollment period (SEP) to sign up for Medicare or other insurance. Depending on the circumstances and the coverage available, the SEP could be only 30 days.

“The special enrollment periods allow individuals and families to pick up coverage outside of the open enrollment period,” said Debra Wood, a family resource management agent with the Central Kansas Extension District. “If they miss the opportunity, they will go without coverage until they can add it during open enrollment, thus having a gap where they will owe 100% of the cost of their health care.”

While employed, the deadline to add health insurance – such as for the birth of a child – is often as little as 30 days. That window opens to 60 days, Miller said, for such options as the marketplace exchange or Medicare special enrollment.

Teresa Hatfield, an adult development and aging agent in Sedgwick County, said those who may have recently lost a job and have an employer’s group insurance plan have up to eight months to sign up for Medicare Part B after employment ends without a penalty. “If they do not already have Part A of Medicare, they can also sign up for that as well at any time,” she said.

She adds that there is a two month window for those to sign up for Medicare Part D or C, which are plans to cover prescription drugs and Medicare Advantage.

“If someone is over age 65 and lose their employer coverage, they need to get signed up for Part B of Medicare as soon as possible,” said Susie Latta, a family and consumer science agent in Marshall County. “The majority of Kansans still pick up Part A of Medicare, which is free when they turn 65, but they must pick up Part B through social security. This process requires the human resources office to sign and return a form that says the employee had creditable coverage from the employer.”

In addition to those who have recently lost a job, Miller said SEPs are available to those who have recently turned 26, married, divorced, moved to a new zip code, given birth, adopted a child, been released from jail, lost coverage through various government insurers, or had an immigration status changed.

In all cases, she said, it’s important for individuals to immediately review their policy, and talk with an employer’s human resources department, insurance provider, or other trusted people and organizations in the community.

To find your nearest SHICK counselor, call 800-860-5260 or visit the SHICK website and click on “Locating Help.” K-State Research and Extension also has many agents in Kansas – called certified application counselors -- to help with Marketplace health insurance. For information on that program and to locate a counselor near you, visit www.coverks.org.