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How to shop for an individual health plan

Finding an individual health care plan that meets your medical needs and doesn't break your budget isn't easy.

"There's a lot of variation in price. You really do need to shop very, very carefully," says Trudy Lieberman, director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumers Union.

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To land a good deal you'll need to be a super-savvy shopper. This worksheet from Bankrate.com will help you compare plans.

Be sure to pinpoint when a health plan's medical benefits actually kick in. Most hospital costs happen within the first 48 hours. If your insurance policy doesn't cover those hospital costs, you could get zapped with a really hefty hospital bill.

"When does the policy become effective?" asks Pat Schoeni, executive director for the National Coalition for Health Care. "If it doesn't become effective until the fifth day in the hospital, it really doesn't help you."

Ask for a summary of policy benefits. You may be able to find these online. And this is a quick way to compare plans between carriers.

Read the fine print
As awful as it may sound, it's important that you read a health care policy in its entirety.

"You've got to look at the small type in the policy," Schoeni says. "Exclusions -- therein lies the rub. That's what you need to read."

Not sure where to begin your search for individual health care?

Contact your state insurance department and ask for a list of carriers that sell individual health care policies in your state. Some states even offer a consumer insurance guide to assist with your shopping.

Your state insurance department can also tell you about laws and consumer protections in your state. Since insurance is regulated at the state level, it's important to understand the laws in your state when shopping for insurance. This map links to each state's insurance department.

Another good source of state insurance information on the Web is Healthinsuranceinfo.net from Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute. This site has consumer guides for getting and keeping health insurance in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Insurance alternatives
Interested in getting the most bang out of your insurance buck? Start by checking out plans from your local Blue Cross Blue Shield organization as well as local HMOs. These plans tend to offer good benefits without breaking your wallet.

Another way to curb health care costs is to choose a plan with a higher deductible. The higher you set your deductible, the lower the price of your premium.

Most health plans come with $250 to $300 deductible. By opting for a plan with $1,000 or $3,000 or even $5,000 deductible, you can really knock down the cost of your premium. The downside? You could end up paying thousands of dollars of medical expenses out of your own pocket if you fall ill.

 
-- Posted: Dec. 2, 2003
   

 

 
 

 

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