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Health insurance hard to find for over-50 crowd

Finding health insurance when you are too young for Medicare -- but old enough to have aches and pains can make you crazy -- and poor.

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"The pre-65 individual insurance market is a Sahara Desert," says Rick McGill, principal and health consultant at Hewitt Associates, human resources outsourcing and consulting firm.

Like it or not, the best way to get health insurance is to work at a company that offers access to a good policy or be married -- or even partnered -- with someone whose employer offers such insurance.

Barring that, the key is to be "a very savvy consumer," says Cynthia Saunders, assistant professor of health services administration at the University of Maryland. To compare insurance policies and quotes, visit Insureme.com, a Bankrate company.

However, before seeking insurance or leaving yours behind, you should be aware of some important facts. For instance, while the states and the federal government have taken some steps to make insurance available to everyone, there is no law that mandates universal health insurance coverage or -- when push comes to shove -- forces an insurer to sell you a policy.

On your own
Insurance laws differ from state to state, and the rules in some states are more consumer-friendly than in others.
The pursuit of health insurance
1. Rules of the game
2. If you have insurance now
3. If you have no insurance
4. Insurance through your business
5. High-risk pools
6. Other options

In addition, insurance laws differ from state to state. It behooves you to become acquainted with the rules in your own state.

Ready for a dose of health care reality? Brace yourself. Most of the statistical information comes from Statehealthfacts.org, compiled for the Kaiser Foundation by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. Another excellent source of comparative state health insurance information is Healthinsuranceinfo.net, also compiled by the Georgetown Health Policy Institute.

Rules of the game
Here are factors that affect the hunt for insurance:
Folks 50-plus are disadvantaged. Insurers view people older than 50 as risky, and they are in the business of minimizing risk. "That's when the law of averages catches up with folks and when they develop chronic conditions," says Sandy Praeger, of the Kansas insurance commission and president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Not an apples-to-apples situation. An insurance company's willingness to insure you, the conditions under which it can drop you or limit coverage, and the amount it can charge you is directly tied to the laws and regulations in the state in which you live. Just because your friend who lives in a different state got a great deal from a certain insurer doesn't mean that same insurance company will offer you a similar deal if you live in a different state. It just doesn't work that way, and that's one of the key reasons that buying individual insurance is difficult.
Consumers have some clout. Every state has a state insurance office that regulates how insurance companies do business in that state. Although it can't enact laws willy-nilly, the insurance office in your state does have the power to enforce the state's rules and it can make an insurer sweat. So while there's probably no neatly bound booklet available that fully explains everything, the state insurance office is a good place to start if you need authoritative information about your state's insurance laws. And if you are trying to buy insurance, you almost certainly need that information.
Next: "If you drop COBRA in favor of something cheaper ..."
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Health plan pitfalls to watch for
Vanishing retiree health care benefits
Fight for health care rights
Bad insurance buys
Don't kill your life insurance policy
Shopping for a health insurance plan

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