Whether you’re self-employed, unemployed, or covered under an employer’s health-care plan, finding affordable health insurance can be a frustrating, time-consuming process. Throw in controversy around the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and finding accurate, reliable information can be a nightmare. Sure, cheap health insurance exists, but qualifying can be tricky, and you’ll want to be sure the coverage isn’t too skimpy to cover your needs.
In this article, I cover the true costs of going uninsured, what health care reform means for you, and general tips that will help you get the best deal on health coverage.
No matter what your health insurance needs are, it pays to shop around. Unfortunately, depending on when you’re reading this, you’ve probably missed the 2019 open enrollment window, which went from Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, to Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. After that date, your enrollment options in most states will be very limited until late 2019, unless you have a qualifying life event — such as getting married, losing your job, or having a child, for example.
You can get started by using our online search tool, below, that will help you find and compare health care plans in your area.
Find the Best Health Insurance
Enter your ZIP code below and be sure to click at least 2-3 companies to find the very best rate.
The Cost and Dangers of Going Uninsured
Health insurance can be expensive, but before you decide to go without, take a careful look at the risks. For instance, according to WebMD, there’s a 1 in 5 chance you will land in the ER at some point between the ages of 25 and 44, a trip that could cost you as much as $1,450 a pop. If you need surgery on a broken arm, you could be on the hook for more than $16,000 if you’re without insurance.
It’s probably a myth that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy (some research pegs it at only around 4%), but everyone agrees that if you’re stretched too thin financially, and then you have a whopping medical expense on top of that, it isn’t good.
Incidentally, when the Affordable Care Act was originally passed, you had to pay a penalty tax for going without health coverage unless you met certain exemption criteria, including financial hardship. But going forward, in 2019, there will be no fee if you don’t have health insurance. (If you were uninsured in 2018, you will be penalized on your 2018 tax form for that.)
So, sure, you could argue: “Hey, no fee. I don’t need to get health insurance.” You could argue that, but please don’t. The Affordable Care Act has been mired in controversy for years, partially due to the required fee, but whatever one’s feelings about the ACA, we can probably all agree that it’s a good idea to have health insurance.
And, sure, you might think to yourself, “Well, I’ll just put aside money every month in my savings account in case I have to go to a doctor.” That may work out fine for awhile, but what if you break your leg, for instance? The average cost to fix a broken leg, according to HealthCare.gov, is $7,500. And hopefully you won’t wind up in the hospital for three days. That will typically run you $30,000.
How to Find Cheap Health Insurance: Six Strategies
It’s illegal for different vendors to charge different prices for the same health plans, so finding affordable health insurance is more about making sure you’ve evaluated all your options from the widest possible range of providers. It also means you should have a good idea of what your needs are before you shop.
Remember, the cheapest plans usually offer the least coverage, and only you can decide whether saving a few dollars is worth that particular pitfall.
1. Shop around
While convenient, the state exchanges set up through the ACA aren’t your only avenues for finding cheap health insurance. You have several other options, and you have nothing to lose (except money) by checking out one or all of them.
Buy Direct Through Insurance Companies
Insurers may have a greater range of policies available on their websites than they do on the state exchanges. Most will let you directly compare plan details, see more detailed information, and apply online. Of course, you won’t be able to see options from other providers, so this might not be your best bet for saving money unless you know which company you want to do business with.
Buy Through an Agent
An insurance agent can be a good option if you’re overwhelmed by your choices and feel you need expert help to make the right health insurance decision.
There are two main types of insurance agents: “Captive” agents offer products through only one company, while independent agents (also called brokers) can help you choose a plan from one of several insurers.
If savings is your bottom line, it probably makes more sense to work with an independent agent who will be able to find and compare more options. But if you’re set on working with a certain company, a captive agent may better know their products.
Buy Through an Online Insurance Finder
Online insurance finders like eHealthInsurance are similar to independent agents, minus the personal touch. After you answer a few questions, they’ll offer plans from several companies that may include options not shown via your state marketplace.
Convenience is your major advantage with online services, as they’ll save you the time and effort that’s involved in meeting with an agent. Just be sure to read the fine print and know exactly what you’re signing up for before you choose a plan.
If that doesn’t get you the affordable health insurance you’re looking for, you may also want to check out Plan Finder, a website offered by HealthCare.gov. The website will help you find plans with private health insurers that aren’t in the Health Insurance Marketplace.
2. Know Whether You Qualify for Special Programs
Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program) provide low-cost, federally subsidized health care for those who qualify.
Medicare, the most well-known of the bunch, is specifically for those over age 65, while Medicaid is meant for those with very low incomes. CHIP is meant for children (and, in some cases, their families) who don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford to buy insurance otherwise.
The easiest way to determine eligibility is by applying for health plans through your state health insurance exchange. If you’re eligible, you can enroll in Medicaid and CHIP at any time of the year.
There’s another scenario where you might be able to get coverage if you missed the open enrollment period. You may qualify for a Special Enrollment Period. This happens after certain life events such as losing health coverage, moving, getting married, having a baby or adopting a child. But if this happens, you’ll need to apply within 60 days of that event, otherwise you’ll have to wait until the next open enrollment period.
3. Make Sure COBRA Is Worth It
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, better known as COBRA, lets you stay on your employer’s insurance plan for up to 18 months when you would otherwise lose coverage, typically because you were laid off. But it’s also a very costly way to stay insured. Again, instead of sharing your health insurance costs with your employer, you’re paying for the entire plan.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2017 report, the average monthly premium for a single individual (without a spouse and kids) is $558. The average premium for people who qualify for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which means you’re getting subsidies and/or tax credits, is around $89 a month (about 85 percent of Americans are eligible for subsidies). But let’s say that you’re not eligible for subsidies or tax credits. Your average monthly payment would be $440, according to eHealth.com, so you’d still come out ahead.
Of course, COBRA can still be advantageous if you need to maintain access to providers who may not be available under other plans, or if you know you have a big medical expense coming up and have already met your deductible for the year. Be sure to weigh these factors when you’re comparing costs.
4. Ask Your Parents about Staying on Their Plan
If you’re under 26, the ACA allows you to stay on your parents’ health insurance plan. Even if you pay your parents the difference between keeping you on their plan and dropping you, this may well be your cheapest option.
You can take advantage of this option even if you’re married or otherwise financially independent of your parents. Just be sure that your parents’ insurer offers in-network care providers where you live; out-of-network costs can add up quickly and cancel out your savings.
5. Consider High-Deductible or ‘Catastrophic’ Plans
If you don’t anticipate using your health plan much, high-deductible plans with lower monthly premiums might be the way to go.
Under the ACA, you’re eligible for catastrophic plans with low premiums if you’re under 30, or over 30 and qualify for a hardship exemption. (Hardship exemptions include more dire financial circumstances including homelessness, recent eviction, and bankruptcy — see a full list on healthcare.gov.
A catastrophic plan entitles you to three primary care doctor’s visits per year, prescription coverage, and other essential benefits. However, you’ll pay out of pocket for any medical care outside those parameters until you reach a pricey and jaw-dropping deductible — $7,900 in 2019. Insurers also have a range of high-deductible plans available directly through their websites.
While you’ll pay low premiums with a catastrophic or high-deductible plan, experts say only those who are young and in excellent health should consider them. And make sure you have a way to meet the high deductible if you need to — otherwise, your cheap plan can become very costly if you need care that isn’t covered.
If you’re shopping through your state marketplace, know that catastrophic plans aren’t eligible for subsidies that apply to other marketplace plans. If you’re eligible for subsidies, the savings can make up most of the cost difference between catastrophic plans and high-deductible bronze plans, sometimes making bronze or even silver more affordable because of better coverage. (In case it helps in your decision making, most people don’t choose catastrophic coverage; less than 1% of people enrolled in the health insurance exchange select it.)
One more tip: Consider opening a health savings account (HSA) if you go with a high-deductible plan, which are often called high deductible health plans (HDHP). You can sock away money in an HSA completely tax-free to help you pay for health care. Individuals can contribute up to $3,500 in 2019 as long as they are enrolled in a health care plan with a deductible of at least $1,350.
If you don’t use the funds by the end of the year, don’t worry — they can roll over to the next year. Some financial advisors even recommend using HSAs as a supplementary, tax-advantaged retirement account.
6. Be Wary of Short-Term Plans
Short-term or temporary health insurance plans, which generally last for three months but can be renewed, are likely your cheapest option of all. How cheap? On eHealthInsurance, they’re advertising plans for as little as $75 a month. I found short-term plans for myself on eHealthInsurance for as little as $77.80 per month. But before you get too excited, keep reading.
These plans are also your only option if you’re shopping for health coverage outside of open enrollment and don’t have a qualifying event that makes you eligible for special enrollment. But before you jump at a short-term plan to save some cash, beware of the pitfalls that come with these bare-bones policies.
First, the protections afforded by the ACA don’t apply here. That means if you have pre-existing conditions, short-term plan providers might not cover you, and if you become seriously ill, you might not be able to renew your plan. And because short-term plans don’t qualify as adequate coverage under the ACA, you will still be hit with the same tax penalties that people without any sort of health coverage must pay.
Second, know just how skimpy the coverage is under short-term plans. Unlike ACA-approved catastrophic plans, preventative care including immunizations and physicals probably won’t be covered. The plans also come with a lifetime cap on care, unlike regular health insurance, so you could run out of coverage in the event of very serious injury or illness.
They also aren’t HSA-eligible, and if you do end up needing significant coverage, you could still be out a large chunk of change thanks to a high deductible — the average annual deductible in 2018 was $5,953 for plans sold by eHealthInsurance. And that insurance plan I found for $77.80? It had a $12,500 deductible.
Bottom line: There are lots of limitations to short-term plans, and these plans have a lot of critics. Although they may be your cheapest option, it won’t really be cheap health insurance in the long run, if you may end up spending a lot more than you bargained for, and experts warn against using them except as a last resort in between jobs. Otherwise, a low-cost catastrophic, bronze, or possibly even silver plan will offer a better affordable health insurance option.
Is the Affordable Care Act an Affordable Health Insurance Option?
Whatever your stance on health care reform, there’s no denying that the ACA has given the uninsured a new option. The ACA, the legislation behind the new health insurance exchanges, aims to make affordable health insurance available to everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions that traditionally make plans too expensive (or keep them out of reach entirely). It also prohibits insurers from dropping you because you get sick, and puts an end to lifetime and yearly plan limits for essential care.
Some states run their own health insurance exchanges, others use the federal exchange, and some have a hybrid. You can find your state’s exchange here.
As we mentioned, if you’re considering getting coverage under the ACA, act fast: You must enroll by Dec. 15 if you want to get covered starting Jan. 1. If you miss that deadline, you won’t be able to enroll for the rest of the year unless you meet special criteria — such as having a baby, getting married, or losing other qualifying health insurance.
Understand that just because the ACA aims to make health insurance more affordable, it does not mean that your individual cost will actually be lower. Some people have seen big increases in their health insurance premiums through the new exchanges, so you should also look at your private insurance options to cover all your bases.
What Kinds of Health Insurance Plans Are Available Through the ACA Marketplace?
Plans are categorized in four tiers: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. They cover about 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90% of your health-care costs, respectively (which, of course, means you would pay 40%, 30%, 20%, and 10% of the costs), with higher premiums attached to the greater percentages.
Catastrophic plans that cover less than 60% of costs have the cheapest premiums of all, but they are available only if you’re under 30 years old or can qualify for a hardship exemption that waives the fee for going uninsured.
Is Coverage Cheaper Through the Marketplace?
There is no guarantee that you will find cheaper health care plans through the ACA marketplace than other places you can shop, such as directly through insurers’ websites.
In general, you’re more likely to find low-cost medical insurance through the marketplace if you’ve been a high-risk customer to insurers in the past — that is, one who is older or has known health problems. You may also find more affordable health insurance through the marketplace if your income makes you eligible for subsidies that can help keep your costs down.
On the flip side, you may be unimpressed with your marketplace options if you’re younger, in good health, or ineligible for subsidies. Check here to seewhether you’re eligible for health subsidies.
A Few More Tips as You Look for Cheap Health Insurance
Just a few more things to remember as you look for affordable health care coverage:
Cheap health insurance is not always cheap.
You probably picked up on this when we talked about catastrophic health insurance, but don’t only look at the monthly premium when you’re trying to figure out what plan you want. You need to look at co-pays, the amount of money you’ll pay when you go to a routine doctor’s visit. What’s the most you’ll spend in a year (the annual out-of-pocket maximum) if you end up using your health insurance a lot?
You need to read the fine print, which, once you get through it, may not be so fine. Maybe, for instance, there are certain expenses that won’t go toward your deductible. Maybe your dental coverage is lacking, or maybe there is no dental coverage. And so on. Cheap health insurance may mean that it’s so cheap, it’s practically worthless.
Think about what kind of plan you want.
There’s the Preferred Provider Organization, a PPO, and a Health Maintenance Organization plan, an HMO. There’s also an Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) and a Point-of-Service Plan (POS) as well as a Catastrophic Plan, which we’ve covered. What’s the difference? Well, in a nutshell, PPOs tend to have more flexibility in what doctor and hospital you can see (and get your insurance to pay for), and HMOs lack that flexibility (you can only see certain doctors and hospitals within your insurer’s network).
HMOs are cheaper, but there are more restrictions for coverage; for instance, if you want to see a specialist, you generally will need to get a referral from your primary care doctor. A lot of people tend to complain about those referrals since it means an extra visit and co-pay to a doctor, and if you’re in pain, that’s extra time you’re spending not getting treatment from a specialist. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get an HMO. It’s just something to think about.
An EPO is similar to an HMO in that you’ll have to go to the doctors and hospitals in its network, but you won’t need that referral. So if you like HMOs but hate the idea of having to ask for a referral, an EPO may be for you, although beware of the high deductibles. EPOs, incidentally, aren’t very common.
A POS is also somewhat similar to an HMO, and you will need a referral. These are also pretty rare, and the deductibles are usually higher than HMOs. And now you’re thinking, “OK, they’re rare? Why do they even exist? Why do I even care?” The main selling point is that it is a pretty affordable health insurance plan, like an HMO, but you can see doctors out of the network – if you’re willing to pay a higher fee for it.
Find a health insurance agent.
You don’t have to, of course, but you also don’t have to do this on your own. Trying to find the right affordable health insurance can be pretty perplexing. If you don’t have a health insurance agent, you can ask your friends or family if they have recommendations, or you could look at the National Association of Health Underwriters.
The benefit of using an agent is that he or she may be able to find you cheap health insurance, or at least something reasonably priced, that you actually like and aren’t afraid to use. Remember, cheap health insurance is actually expensive if you end up paying for a policy that hate.
Finding Cheap Medical Insurance
Health care reform has made finding insurance more straightforward, but there’s no guarantee that what you find on the state or federal health exchanges will be your cheapest option. Shopping around is still important as you evaluate your options. Our online quote tool will help you begin searching for cheap health insurance providers in your area.
Find the Best Health Insurance
Enter your ZIP code below and be sure to click at least 2-3 companies to find the very best rate.