Time is typically limited to choose the best health insurance plan for your family, but rushing and picking the wrong one can be costly. Here’s a start-to-finish guide to choosing the best plan for you and your family, whether it’s through the federal marketplace or an employer.
Step 1: Choose your health plan marketplace
Most people with health insurance get it through an employer. If you’re one of those people, you won’t need to use the government insurance exchanges or marketplaces. Essentially, your company is your marketplace.
If your employer offers health insurance and you wish to search for an alternative plan in the exchanges, you can. But plans in the marketplace are likely to cost a lot more. This is because most employers pay a portion of workers’ insurance premiums and because the plans have lower total premiums, on average.
If your job doesn’t provide health insurance, shop on your state’s public marketplace, if available, or the federal marketplace to find the lowest premiums. Start by going to HealthCare.gov and entering your ZIP code during open enrollment. You’ll be sent to your state’s exchange if there is one. Otherwise, you’ll use the federal marketplace.
You can also purchase health insurance through a private exchange or directly from an insurer. If you choose these options, you won’t be eligible for premium tax credits, which are income-based discounts on your monthly premiums.
Step 2: Compare types of health insurance plans
You’ll encounter some alphabet soup while shopping; the most common types of health insurance policies are HMOs, PPOs, EPOs or POS plans. The kind you choose will help determine your out-of-pocket costs and which doctors you can see.
While comparing plans, look for a summary of benefits. Online marketplaces usually provide a link to the summary and show the cost near the plan’s title. A provider directory, which lists the doctors and clinics that participate in the plan’s network, should also be available. If you’re going through an employer, ask your workplace benefits administrator for the summary of benefits.
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Step 3: Compare health plan networks
Costs are lower when you go to an in-network doctor because insurance companies contract lower rates with in-network providers. When you go out of network, those doctors don’t have agreed-upon rates, and you’re typically on the hook for a higher portion of the cost.
If you have preferred doctors and want to keep seeing them, make sure they’re in the provider directories for the plan you’re considering. You can also directly ask your doctors if they take a particular health plan.
If you don’t have a preferred doctor, look for a plan with a large network so you have more choices. A larger network is especially important if you live in a rural community, since you’ll be more likely to find a local doctor who takes your plan.
Eliminate any plans that don’t have local in-network doctors, if possible, and those with very few provider options compared with other plans.
Step 4: Compare out-of-pocket costs
Out-of-pocket costs are nearly as important as the network. Any plan’s summary of benefits should clearly lay out how much you’ll have to pay out of pocket for services. The federal marketplace website offers snapshots of these costs for comparison, as do many state marketplaces.
This is where it’s useful to know a few health insurance vocabulary words. As the consumer, your portion of costs consists of the deductible, copayments and coinsurance. The total you can spend out of pocket in a year is limited, and that out-of-pocket maximum is also listed in your plan information. In general, the lower your premium, the higher your out-of-pocket costs.
Your goal during this step is to narrow down choices based on out-of-pocket costs. A plan that pays a higher portion of your medical costs, but has higher monthly premiums, may be better if:
- You see a primary physician or a specialist frequently.
- You frequently need emergency care.
- You take expensive or brand-name medications on a regular basis.
- You are expecting a baby, plan to have a baby or have small children.
- You have a planned surgery coming up.
- You’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition such as diabetes or cancer.
A plan with higher out-of-pocket costs and lower monthly premiums might be the better choice if:
- You can’t afford the higher monthly premiums for a plan with lower out-of-pocket costs.
- You are in good health and rarely see a doctor.
Step 5: Compare benefits
By now, you likely have your options narrowed to just a few. To further winnow down, go back to that summary of benefits to see if any of the plans cover a wider scope of services. Some may have better coverage for things like physical therapy, fertility treatments or mental health care, while others might have better emergency coverage.
If you skip this quick but important step, you could miss out on a plan that’s much better suited to you and your family.
Once you’re down to a couple of options, it’s time to address any lingering questions. In some cases, only speaking with a person will do, so it may be time to call the plans’ customer service lines. Write your questions down ahead of time, and have a pen or computer handy to record the answers.
Here are some examples of what you could ask:
- I take a certain medication. How is that covered under this plan?
- Which drugs for my condition are covered under this plan?
- What maternity services are covered?
- What happens if I get sick when traveling abroad?
- How do I get started signing up, and what documents will I need?
A final tip: Don’t forget to discontinue your old plan, if you have one, before the new one starts.
Checklist: Choosing a health insurance plan
Here’s a quick summary of the steps above:
- Go to your marketplace and view your plan options side by side.
- Decide which type of plan — HMO, PPO, EPO or POS — is best for you and your family, and whether you want an HSA-eligible plan.
- Eliminate plans that exclude your doctor or any local doctors in the provider network.
- Determine whether you want more health coverage and higher premiums, or lower premiums and higher-out-of-pocket costs.
- Make sure any plan you choose will pay for your regular and necessary care, like prescriptions and specialists.