An ‘Unprecedented’ Number Of Coloradans Are Enrolling in Medicaid Due To The Coronavirus Pandemic

An array of medical masks on a bed at St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An array of medical masks on a bed at St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.

Colorado is preparing for a breathtaking spike in people enrolling in Medicaid, about half of a million people.

The state agency that manages the program said Wednesday it anticipates that number will enroll in Colorado’s public insurance programs, Health First Colorado (the state’s Medicaid program) and Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+) in the coming months by the end of the year.

The Department of Health Care Policy and Financing said the wave represents a spike of about 40 percent from the 1.3 million Coloradans enrolled in the two programs in March 2020.

The number of new enrollees is expected to eclipse the number of people who signed up for Medicaid when the program expanded under the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. During that two-year period, enrollment shot up by roughly 400,000.

Two things are driving the trend, according to the agency. The first is due to people losing their jobs in the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people get their health insurance through employer-sponsored health coverage and lose it if they get laid off. The state’s unemployment rate has ballooned to 11.3 percent from 2.5 percent in February. That’s the highest since the state started tracking unemployment in 1976, according to the agency.

The second factor is a projected increase in enrollment due to the federal public health emergency, which was implemented after the pandemic hit. It requires the state’s Medicaid program to hold back from disenrolling members from Medicaid during the emergency period. The department estimates, once the emergency ends, more than 300,000 members of the program would be disenrolled because they don’t meet eligibility criteria.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is “unlike anything we’ve ever seen” said Kim Bimestefer, executive director for the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

“This is unprecedented," Bimestefer said. “(That) makes it that much more important for Coloradans who lose their employer-sponsored health coverage to find ways to stay covered. Coloradans who find themselves in this difficult circumstance should give Health First Colorado and CHP+ a close look.”

The programs will provide individuals and families with “needed health care coverage and peace of mind during this economic downturn,” she added.

Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, who’s also a pediatrician, said even when the economy is strong, many Colorado families she treats depend on Medicaid. Caraveo said lawmakers tried to plan for the growth in Medicaid when they worked on the budget to ensure the state has the resources to provide health care through the program.

“Many families will end up needing Medicaid in order to ensure that their children can continue to get the preventative care and vaccines they need to stay healthy and to access care when they are sick,” Caraveo said.

The pandemic's impact, and the increase in Medicaid enrollments, also continues to affect Black Coloradans more.

"It is almost certain that this number will impact people of color and African/Black Americans at a very disproportionate rate, given the current unemployment and layoff rates we are hearing and seeing," said John A. Reid, development director with the Center for African American Health, in an email.

To fulfill the increased need, the state is urging doctors who aren’t already Medicaid providers to offer those services, especially since many of their current patients are losing their employer-sponsored coverage.

“In order for those providers to maintain that patient relationship, as well as the revenue stream associated with that patient relationship, they need to enroll in Medicaid, said Bimestefer, of the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Bimestefer said many of those providers could be eligible for federal money offered to those who treat certain Medicaid and CHP+ patients.

To see about eligibility, Coloradans can visit

Eligibility is based on many factors in addition to income, according to the agency. Generally, individuals who make less than $1,415 a month before taxes and families of four who make less than $3,101 a month before taxes may qualify for Health First Colorado.

Coloradans age 18 and under, as well as pregnant women who don’t qualify for Health First Colorado, may qualify for CHP+. Individuals who make less than $2,765 a month before taxes and families of four who make less than $5,677 a month before taxes may also qualify for CHP+.

Coloradans can apply for health care coverage at any time online. There’s no open enrollment period, the agency said, and about 75 percent of people who apply online find out immediately if their coverage is approved. People can also apply by phone, mail or at county offices.