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In more and more states, filing taxes can help people find health insurance

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right, what's more annoying than paying taxes? Well, shopping for health insurance is pretty high up there. But Sarah Boden with member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports that in a growing number of states, filing taxes can actually make finding health insurance a little easier.

SARAH BODEN, BYLINE: Diana Avellaneda does people's taxes in Maryland, and when she tells her clients they might qualify for low-cost health care coverage, many don't believe her.

DIANA AVELLANEDA: It's like a taboo, right? Like, oh, no, no, no. This is just for very low-income people. No, it's not. It's not.

BODEN: She's talking about Medicaid or the coverage you can buy on the health insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. These plans are now more affordable than they have been in years. And in Maryland, taxpayers can find out their eligibility by simply checking a box on their tax returns. Doing so doesn't automatically enroll them in health coverage, but it creates a warm handoff that gives a consumer an estimate of the kind of financial assistance they qualify for.

AVELLANEDA: My experience with the people that I have asked if they have applied - my experience is, like, 80% of them have qualified.

BODEN: You do still have to follow through and sign up for coverage. Yet in the windy nightmare that is health insurance, what Maryland created is remarkably efficient.

ANTOINETTE KRAUS: I think anything that helps get uninsured individuals connected to coverage through something they already have to do every year is a win-win for everyone.

BODEN: Antoinette Kraus of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network says she was a big advocate for her state to follow Maryland's lead, which it did last year. Kraus notes that the number of uninsured Pennsylvanians and Americans is at an all-time low.

KRAUS: So the folks that are left that don't have health coverage are often some of the folks that are hardest to find.

BODEN: But everyone has to file their taxes. By next year, a total of 10 states will have some form of easy enrollment program, including Maine, California and New Jersey. This is all happening at a time of incredible churn for health insurance, due in large part to the end of COVID-19 era policies, which are forcing people to reenroll in Medicaid or find new insurance if they make too much money. So having a simple way to connect people to health care coverage is a good idea. Coleman Drake is a health policy expert at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies insurance markets.

COLEMAN DRAKE: Most enrollees are eligible, if not for zero-premium plans with, I should mention, really generous coverage. They can typically get them for under $10, under $20 a month.

BODEN: Drake cautions using the tax system to point people toward health insurance isn't going to get everyone covered. Only about 10,000 Marylanders have gotten insurance this way since 2020, and that's less than 3% of the total uninsured population in that state. The number in Pennsylvania is estimated to be super small, too. But Drake says there needs to be more initiatives that cut through red tape and lower the administrative burden of getting health insurance. And what Maryland started and Pennsylvania continued is a step forward.

DRAKE: Uninsurance in general is extremely costly to society. So whatever we can do here to make signing up for health insurance easy, I think is an advantage.

BODEN: This lower-cost coverage is out there for consumers. To not take advantage of it is like leaving money on the table.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Boden in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Boden covers health, science and technology for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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