Buying and maintaining affordable health insurance can seem like a daunting proposition. With so many options to choose from and countless figures associated with each policy, it can sometimes seem as though you need an M.D. simply to make sense of it all. Thankfully there are some basic tips you can use for guidance along the way.
1. Know your health. Buying health insurance is confusing enough without having to wonder what those physicals will find. If you haven't been to a clinic for a checkup in the last several years, you may want to get a detailed overview before you begin shopping. Often just by getting your blood chemistry and a few other key indicators, you can save yourself considerable time down the road.
2. If you have a pre-existing medical condition such as diabetes or hypertension, you may have trouble getting affordable health insurance. Do not give up, however – these days a number of boutique insurance companies specialize in insuring people with certain disorders. Even if you believe you will never be able to find annual fees that suit your budget, a little research is bound to discover at least one or two companies who offer a higher standard of care and support. Needless to say, you want to avoid the major insurance companies for the same reason.
3. Ask your existing doctors and specialists whether they belong to any group plans such as HMOs or PPOs. You may not have anyone in your Rolodex if you have avoided medical care during a period of unemployment, but it is always wise to look ahead and anticipate the people you expect to visit. This includes psychiatrists, chiropractors and countless other subspecialties, so make a list of your ideal caregivers. Even if you cannot think of anyone offhand, most experts recommend calling a local treatment center and seeing what kind of insurance they offer the best rates with.
4. Look for group plans, even if you're between jobs. Too many people assume that if they have lost their jobs, few options exist for affordable health care. Not so – today a growing stable of trade groups, guilds and unions have sprung up to help people who may be out of work or self-employed. It's not unusual for major insurance companies to offer outstanding rates to group plans such as these, so you may save thousands each year just by joining up. The last thing you want is to pay out of pocket just because you freelance, so look for like-minded people in your area to see what's possible.
5. Another good option if you have recently terminated at another job is to take advantage of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA. This legislation stipulates that employers must provide you with supplemental health insurance for up to a year after you leave the job – not a long term plan, perhaps, but a welcome buffer if you do not relish the thought of spending weeks without a safety net. Most employers will extend COBRA benefits automatically, though some may require proof of employment and recent health records. Be prepared to produce all this information if you want to avoid lag times.
6. Decide whether you want to go with a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) or a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO). Each offers different pros and cons, but the difference boils down to a simple question of access versus cost. PPOs are popular because they allow you to seek care outside your original health network, albeit it at an increased deductible and copay. HMOs, on the other hand, only cover caregivers within the network – but they may offer significant savings if you don't foresee the need to travel outside your plan for treatment.
7. SHOP AROUND! Health insurance companies are notorious for the widely divergent algorithms they use to determine your premiums. If you are unhappy with the prices at one, be sure to collect several more estimates before you commit to any plan. It's not unusual for two companies with the same data and case history to vary as much as 50 percent from one another, so you owe it to yourself to get a boarder overview. Don't just limit yourself to major providers either – a number of low-volume insurance companies offer special deals that may benefit people in your neighborhood or profession.
8. Be sure and check the copays on any medications you are already taking. Too many people forget this step, only to find themselves astonished by their first trip to the pharmacy. You may also want to look into the difference in cost for brand-name versus generic drugs – sometimes you can find a steep discount by switching to a medication only one provider covers. When in doubt, ask a customer service professional about your precise medication and dosage, as you want to get a specific number nailed down before you sign.
9. Save by combining health care policies with family members. It is a well-known fact that married couples enjoy less expensive health care premiums than their unmarried counterparts, but you may be able to save further by putting the whole family under a single umbrella plan. Spouses and children help distribute the risk for insurance carriers, giving them greater incentive to match or beat the other estimates you have seen. You may also be able to combine health insurance with life insurance to create an overarching combined policy – again, the premiums here will inevitably drop as you fold more coverages in.
10. Take care of yourself. This is perhaps self-evident, but it remains of paramount importance to individuals who see themselves switching carriers sometime in the future. Try quitting smoking, losing weight, increasing your exercise and otherwise taking daily steps to improve your health. It is a simple fact of the insurance business that private companies work for profit – if you can minimize the risk they take in covering you, you can expect to pay far less money over the course of your lifetime.