- Open enrollment has begun for health plans purchased through HealthCare.gov and state marketplace exchanges.
- It stretches from November 1, 2019 through December 15, 2019.
- How can you find the right plan for you and your budget?
- Professionals say it’s important to consider how frequent you visit your doctor, whether or not you need prescription medications, and if you have a chronic condition when picking your health plan.
Choosing a healthcare plan can be a cumbersome task . You have to balance what you can afford in monthly premiums, co-pays, and annual deductibles, while trying to make sure you have enough healthcare coverage that you don’t dread a trip to the doctor.
This is a bit confusing for everyone, but often more difficult for people without employer coverage who are going to the open marketplace in search of the right healthcare plan.
Having this in mind we consulted with some experts about what you can look for in a health plan so that it can provide enough coverage without being overly taxing on your wallet.
And this is the perfect time to find a plan that fits your needs and saves you money, since open enrollment for plans on the federal exchange starts November 1.
What you should know about the rise and fall of premium cost
The average premium for the benchmark healthcare plan on the Affordable Care Act health exchange is expected to drop by 4 percent next year, reports CNN.
This is compared to annual premiums for family health coverage gotten through an employer. Those premiums are up 5 percent from last year, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Other out-of-pocket expenses are also on the rise, including deductibles for employer coverage. This is the price you have to pay before your insurance starts covering most services.
The news that premiums are down for plans on the ACA healthcare exchange is good news for anyone who doesn’t qualify for employer coverage, Medicaid (for lower income), or Medicare (those 65 years and older).
If you want to get the most out of these savings, you’ll have to act fast.
The open enrollment period for the federal HealthCare.gov and state insurance marketplaces runs from November 1, 2019 through December 15, 2019.
This is something that apparently 88 percent of Americans may not know. But it’s vital to keep that timeline in mind if you’re interested in getting your plan from the open marketplace.
If you miss the deadline, you will have to wait until next year to apply, unless you qualify for a special enrollment period. This applies to major life events like having a baby, getting married, or losing your health coverage.
Going through the sign up process and comparing healthcare plans can be confusing, so it’s best not to wait until the last minute to start.
Caitlin Donovan, senior director of public relations at the National Patient Advocate Foundation, recommends that you “give yourself a few hours to really look over the different plans.”
Also, if you’re a little fuzzy on the difference between premiums, deductibles, copays, and coinsurance, you might want to brush up on your health plan lingo. This Healthline tutorial will help you become fluent in no time.
Think about your health needs
Before you begin comparing healthcare plans, think about what you and your family’s health needs will be over the next year.
Dr. Nancy Nielsen, MD, PhD, senior associate dean for health policy at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences said you can’t predict if something bad is going to happen, like getting hurt on a ski slope or being diagnosed with cancer.
“But in general, you can pretty much measure it based on what your family’s needs have been in the past,” she added.
For example, if you have little children, they will need to go to the pediatrician fairly often. Or if you’re pregnant, you’ll need prenatal care. These are both fairly inexpensive situations.
“If, on the other hand, somebody in your family has a serious illness,” said Nielsen, “then the chances are that your costs for medical care — total costs — are going to be pretty high.”
To estimate what healthcare you’ll need, ask yourself the following questions. If you have a spouse or children, ask the same questions about their health situation.
- Do you have a chronic health condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, or cancer?
- Do you see your primary care doctor or specialists multiple times a year?
- Do you need regular lab work, MRIs, CT scans, or other tests?
- How often do you use urgent care centers or emergency rooms, either for routine or urgent care?
- Are you taking one or more medications, especially brand name ones which are often more expensive?
“Once you have all that figured out,” said Donovan, “then you can really take a look at what type of plan you need.”
There are four categories of health plans: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. They differ in how much of your medical costs you have to pay out of pocket.
Whichever plan you choose, you get the same quality of care.
Choosing the “best” plan for you
When you begin comparing healthcare plans, it can be tempting to choose the one with the lowest premium, or monthly cost.
While this is an important thing to consider — especially if you earn less money — lower-premium plans come with tradeoffs.
“Insurance plans that have the lowest premiums basically have a higher risk. They tend to be the plans with a higher deductible. They tend to have significant out-of-pocket expenses,” said Dr. Nicole Rochester, founder of Your GPS Doc and author of “Healthcare Navigation 101: A Guide for College-Bound Students (and Parents!).”
This is where your estimated healthcare needs comes in.
People with higher medical costs “probably would benefit from spending a little bit more money on the front end with a slightly higher premium, but choosing a plan that has a lower deductible and lower out-of-pocket expenses,” said Rochester.
For example, if you need ongoing tests like MRIs or CT scans, you could save money by choosing a plan with a higher monthly premium, but a lower deductible.
Likewise, if you make frequent visits to your primary care doctor or specialists every year, you might want to choose a plan with a low co-pay for these visits.
For some — like healthy, young people — a high-deductible plan may make sense. If you fall into this category, keep in mind that all it takes is one bad car accident or surgery to reach your deductible.
Young people are sometimes “shocked when they go to the hospital and they’re responsible for all of the costs up to their deductible, which is often in the multiple thousands,” said Rochester.
Once you’ve settled on a plan, check to make sure your current doctor is included in the provider network.
Insurance companies usually have an online list of providers that are included in each plan’s network. But Donovan still recommends calling your doctor’s office to confirm that they’ll be “in network” for the upcoming year.
Other ways to save on healthcare
HealthCare.gov or a state marketplace website will guide you through these options.
Another way to save on healthcare is with a Health Savings Account, or HSA. This account lets you set aside money on a pre-tax basis to pay for medical expenses.
“If you can afford a health savings plan — and that’s a big if — I highly encourage them, for a lot of reasons,” said Donovan.
You can only contribute to an HSA if you have a high deductible healthcare plan.
But you can use the HSA to pay for deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and some other expenses — although not usually premiums — for both yourself and your dependents.
Also, “there are a lot of instances where you can use an HSA for things that aren’t traditionally covered by your plan,” said Donovan.
This includes things like dental braces, fertility treatments, and chiropractic care.
Donovan said that because HSA funds roll over year to year, if you don’t spend them, you can also use them as a kind of “alternative retirement plan.”
With the average family needing $280,000 to cover their healthcare costs after retirement at 65, an HSA can bring a little security to their golden years, according to Fidelity.
- Visit HealthCare.gov to apply and enroll on the web.
- Call the Marketplace Call Center at 1-800-318-2596. Teletypewriter (TTY) users can call 1-855-889-4325.
- Visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov to find people in your community who can help you apply and enroll.
- Check out the National Patient Advocate Foundation’s #GetCovered resources.