health insurance

Pandemic Unemployment Benefits End — This Relief Is Still Available

You may be eligible for help with healthcare, your rent and more.

While millions of people have stopped receiving enhanced federal unemployment benefits, and millions more have lost the protection of a federal eviction moratorium, considerable pandemic-related aid from the federal government remains available — but in some instances, only a small percentage of those eligible for assistance are receiving it. 

Here’s what’s still available, how to see if you’re eligible, and apply:

Need healthcare? Obamacare is now free for some who have been unemployed 

Since April 2021, the federal government has picked up the cost of COBRA health insurance for  people who were eligible for these benefits through their former workplace. That benefit will last until the end of September.  But once the subsidized COBRA runs out, people can still receive free or almost free healthcare through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, so long as they received unemployment benefits at any point in 2021.

Although a special enrollment period for the unemployed to take advantage of the subsidized ACA coverage ended on Aug. 15, those who received the free COBRA benefit have another opportunity to enroll.  That’s because anyone can enroll in health insurance through the federal marketplace if they experience a qualifying event, such as the loss of a job.

The expiration of COBRA benefits or the end of federal subsidy for COBRA is considered a qualifying event to enroll in the federal health insurance exchange. according to Cynthia Cox, vice president and director for the Program on the ACA at Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on health issues and policy.

This subsidized ACA coverage is “very generous,” Cox said.” It’s really the best deal you can get with private insurance. Not only do these folks pay no monthly premium, they also get a reduction of their deductible to make their silver plan more like a platinum plan. This is way more generous than what people typically get through employers.”

She noted that some may have to pay a small amount for the coverage. “This is particularly the case in states that mandate certain benefits be covered that aren’t considered 'essential' in the ACA. In some states that require abortion be covered, for example, people will have to pay a dollar or two each month for the abortion benefit even though the rest of their plan is free.”

This generous plan is set to expire at the end of the year, but there is some discussion in Congress about extending it.

There’s another catch for some people, Cox added. If your spouse’s employer offers coverage, you might not qualify for coverage on the ACA exchange, even if you were unemployed and had free COBRA coverage.  “This is sometimes called the ’family glitch’ and unfortunately may keep some people with unemployment from getting free exchange plans,” Cox said.

That said, Cox advised anyone who might be eligible for the subsidized coverage to apply as soon as possible through healthcare.gov or their state’s exchange. “Usually if people apply by the 15th of the month, their coverage can start by the first of the next month,” she said.

Another pandemic healthcare benefit: Enhanced Obamacare assistance

In addition to the assistance for people who were unemployed, Congress increased subsidies for plans under the ACA in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Under this new pandemic benefit, more people qualify for help in paying for health insurance, meaning lower premiums for many, depending on household income.

This is intended to extend health insurance to a significant portion of uninsured Americans. But Cox co-authored a study in March that found that millions of people who are eligible for free or low-cost coverage aren’t taking advantage of it. Cox said the researchers haven’t updated their data since earlier this year, “but it’s still likely there are millions uninsured who could be getting free or subsidized coverage.”

The benefit is set to expire at the end of 2022, but there is talk in Congress of making it permanent, according to Cox. 

Rental assistance

With the expiration of the federal ban on evictions, a lot of people feel vulnerable. In fact, nearly 3.7 million renters believe it’s likely they will be evicted in the next two months, according to week 36 of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.  That same survey shows more than 7.6 million were behind in paying rent.

Congress has allocated $25 billion for the first round of emergency rental assistance, meant to help both renters and their landlords. But, according to Treasury Department figures, as of July 31, just $5.1 billion had been spent. The funds are administered at the local level, and the federal government has warned officials that if they fail to speed up moving the money out to recipients, their funds will be reallocated to regions who’ve been quicker to implement the rental assistance. 

If you think you might qualify for assistance, whether you’re a renter or a landlord, the Treasury Department has links to local agencies administering the aid where you can apply.

Enhanced Child Tax Credit

Since the enhanced child tax credit used distribution channels the IRS developed while it was handing out stimulus checks, if you’re eligible for this benefit (by having children and not earning too much money), you’re probably already benefiting in the form of advance payments in your checking account.

But it’s important to remember that fundamentally, the Enhanced Child Tax Credit was designed as pandemic relief and to reduce child poverty. People with children may be eligible for an enhanced tax credit of $3,000 or $3,600 per child, depending on the child’s age.

If you think you're eligible, but not getting these payments, use our 2021 Child Tax Credit Calculator to check your situation. 

Student loan deferral

People with federal student loans held by the government have not been required to make payments since March of 2020. In August, the Department of Education extended the deferral until Jan. 31, 2022.

In addition to deferring loan payments, the government eliminated interest on the loans during this time, meaning the amount outstanding isn’t rising. The government has also stopped collecting defaulted debt.

The deferral can also lower the total repayment requirement for some borrowers, such as those on income driven repayment plans. The deferred payments will count toward IDR forgiveness.

The deferrals do not apply to privately held student loans.

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