Is there anything more confusing than trying to pick out a health insurance plan? Between the acronyms that only make sense to the systems that create them and trying to find the balance between costs you pay now and what you might get stuck with later, health insurance plan comparisons can feel like walking through a maze — blindfolded.
If you need some help taking off the blindfold, then read on to learn how to find cheap health insurance, and how to find the balance between costs today and potentially larger costs tomorrow.
How to find cheap health insurance
The question of how to find cheap health insurance isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Sure, you can find a plan with inexpensive premiums, but your deductible might be through the roof. Or let’s say the deductible is within your realm of reasonable pricing, but the copays are higher than you’d prefer.
That’s why it’s so important to carefully consider all the costs involved when shopping for health insurance.
This sentiment is echoed by Policygenius founder and CEO Jennifer Fitzgerald, who said cost is the most important thing to consider when comparing plans, but that it comes in multiple forms:
Premiums: Paying rent on your health insurance
The most important cost upfront is the premium, that monthly fee you pay to maintain a health insurance plan. Typically, the higher the premium, the lower the other costs. Fitzgerald says a high-premium plan might make sense for your budget if you’re someone who regularly visits the doctor and takes prescription medications.
But if you’re healthy and rarely do more than an annual physical exam, you might be able to opt for a lower-cost monthly premium. Just make sure you realize that doing so could mean paying more for your prescriptions and copays, as well as having a higher deductible.
Deductibles: The wild card of health care costs
One of the best ways to keep your health insurance costs low is to choose a high-deductible plan with a low premium. However, this is also one of the best ways to wipe out your life savings if you end up needing to use a lot of medical services over the course of a year.
As you may know, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for most or all of your medical expenses until your deductible for the year is met — after that, your insurance will usually cover much of your remaining costs. So, if you have a low deductible, then you don’t have to pay much of your own money before your insurance kicks in.
However, if you have a high deductible and end up in the emergency room, you could feel like you’re paying everything out of your own wallet. If you’re willing to go high-deductible in order to save money on your monthly premium, make sure you’re prepared to pay the costs of your deductible should something happen.
Copays: Important but often forgotten
If you don’t go to the doctor often, then this cost is an easy one to disregard accidentally. However, anyone on a monthly prescription or with regular trips to see their physician or specialists needs to bear it in mind — those office visit and prescription copays can add up fast.
Like deductibles, you can usually save money on copays by opting for a higher-premium plan.
Network: The importance of making sure your doctors are covered
Have a favorite doctor or medical center? One way to incur major costs is to end up with a plan that considers such people and places “out of network.” Before selecting a plan, see if your doctors are covered — and if you’re not sure, you can call their office and ask.
That said, Fitzgerald warns that coverage can change anytime (even though you can’t necessarily change your health insurance plan if it does). So consider this in your comparison, but know that it’s not always set in stone.
Maximums: A limit for your out-of-pocket costs
As you consider how much various health insurance plans might cost you, Fitzgerald of Policygenius and Mom and Dad Money blogger and financial planner Matt Becker both note that there are maximums for out-of-pocket costs. As Becker explains:
“I like to compare the guaranteed cost, which is simply the total annual premium payment, and the maximum cost, which is the total annual premium payment plus the out-of-pocket max. Many times you’ll find that the maximum cost of high-deductible plans isn’t much more than the guaranteed cost of low-deductible plans.”
Of course, you’ll have to do your own price comparison to see if that rings true. As for current out-of-pocket maximum costs, Policygenius says for 2018 it will be, “$6,650 for individuals and $13,300 for families.” HealthCare.gov states the maximums for 2018 were “$7,350 for an individual plan and $14,700 for a family plan” for plans in its insurance Marketplace.
The cheapest plan might not be the one you think
As you can see, there’s more to a health insurance plan than the monthly cost of maintaining it. That’s why the plan that looks the cheapest can end up costing some people far more over time.
It’s important to think carefully about the services you might want to use so you can make sure this doesn’t happen to you. When you’re comparing plans, you’ll be able to see prices for all of the factors mentioned above. Find the plans you’re most interested in, and compare the price of each factor.
Then, walk yourself through the past year. How many times did you go to the doctor? How many different types of doctors did you see (including specialists for which you needed a referral)? Did you go to the hospital at all? How many prescription medicines did you take, and how often did you need to refill them?
Now map out each plan you’re reviewing using these data points. How much would each plan cost you this year if it were the same as last? Don’t forget to include anything you think that might change this year, including additional medical services you already know you might need, such as if you’re planning to have a child or have recently been diagnosed with an illness.
With this kind of mapping, you’ll have a fairly good idea of all the costs you might incur with various health insurance plans. Then you can find the one that’s cheapest for you for an entire year, not just each month.
Becker offers this way of thinking when comparing plans:
At its core, insurance is meant to protect you from worst-case scenarios. So, at the very least, you want to make sure you’re not picking a plan that caps your benefits or that excludes any conditions or services that could end up costing you in the long run.
Where to find cheap health insurance
Now that you’ve been armed with information to help you compare plans, let’s go beyond how to find cheap health insurance and discuss where to find it. Luckily, this part can be easier than it seems.
First of all, if your employer offers you health insurance, the various options will be presented to you by your HR department (or, if you work for a smaller company or an early-stage start-up, someone who’s responsible for this type of work). All you have to do is compare plans.
And although you’re not required to take your employer’s health insurance offering, doing so will usually mean big savings for you. According to data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the average employer pays 82 percent of the premium for an employee’s single coverage, and 69 percent of an employee’s family coverage.
As for freelancers, contractors, and anyone who doesn’t have an employer-sponsored plan, here’s how you can find a health insurance plan:
Use HealthCare.gov to find your state’s Marketplace
One easy way to find a health insurance plan is to go to HealthCare.gov and type in your zip code. Depending on where you live, you’ll either be redirected to your state’s Marketplace to look for plans or you’ll stay on HealthCare.gov to view your options.
Once you’ve done that, you can compare the various options and sign up for whichever plan makes the most sense for you.
Another benefit of shopping through government marketplaces is that you can find out if you qualify for even lower rates through plans like Medicaid. Fitzgerald says that many people don’t realize they may be eligible for these subsidies (or for plans that assist in your healthcare costs).
Get help with comparison sites
Although the Marketplace is where you need to go to sign up for health insurance and to see if you qualify for a subsidy, you can get a bit more hand-holding in comparison shopping through sites like Policygenius. According to Fitzgerald, they not only make it easier to search and compare, they also show you plans that you can’t see on the Marketplaces.
That’s because there are two types of plans: On-exchange and off-exchange. Off-exchange plans offer more specific options that might be worth exploring if a subsidy isn’t in the cards for you.
If you opt to try comparison sites to help you shop for a plan, you can then apply for the best one for you on your state’s Marketplace website.
Invest time now to set yourself up for the best possible scenario
We all want to know how to find cheap health insurance, but it’s important to do a holistic comparison that sets you up for success throughout the year. Remember, it’s not just about the monthly premium, it’s also about the other costs you can incur throughout the year.
Keep those deductibles and copays in mind just as much as your monthly premium, and make sure to consider how much you’ll need healthcare services. Then you can make a smart and economical choice for your health insurance needs.
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