Thursday, February 16, 2006

Health Insurance

My COBRA runs out soon. I am faced with purchasing individual health insurance and it’s a daunting task. I’m in remarkably good health for my age. I can afford to buy something. And yet it’s daunting. The forms are complex. The options seem overwhelming. Accurate information is difficult to obtain.

How much do I want to spend on deductible? How much do I want to risk in out of pocket expenses? How often will premiums rise? Exactly what does a plan cover? (If you are an individual, insurance companies do not have to meet the same guidelines with coverage that they do for group policies. And within the same company it may vary greatly—always read the fine print!)

When I apply, I have to attach a check for one month’s premium. This means that applying for lots of policies is not going to happen.

There are websites that help—but none are complete in what they can tell you. All have contact numbers but the people you call don’t necessarily have the answers you need or they may be incorrect—even when you are contacting an agent for the company.

I’m intelligent. I know how to do my research. I still found myself on the brink of tears this week trying to sort it all out. That’s when I pulled out the local phone book and started looking for insurance agents. Since my homeowner’s and auto insurance are with a company I’m happy with, I ruled out agencies that handled those as well. I looked for someone who only handled health insurance. I looked for someone with a website. I went by instinct to choose which one to contact first.

Instinct has served me well over the past couple of years! Instinct led me to my real estate agent here in Austin, Kristi Holdgrafer, my apartment in Menlo Park, CA before that, etc. Instinct worked well again yesterday. I went to the website——and filled out the form. I got a call from a person, Brooke Lagarde, who knew what he was talking about. He knew the companies and their policies and information I had not been able to find out on my own. He was patient with my questions and helpful sorting out options.

Health insurance in this country is in crisis. If one is an individual needing insurance, it’s scary and confusing and expensive. I share my experience this week because maybe it will help someone else. Here are the steps I suggest if you need to find insurance:

1) If you are on COBRA, start 2 months before your benefits run out. It can take longer than you expect to explore options and there are certain protections that you have only if you get individual coverage after when you stay on COBRA to the end and then IMMEDIATELY get individual coverage.

2) Do research online. It’s good to have at least a general understanding of what sorts of policies are out there and what they might cost so you can begin thinking about the tradeoffs YOU will be willing to make.

3) If you feel yourself panicking at all the choices, take deep breaths and a break and go do something useful over which you do have control.

4) When you have familiarized yourself with the options out there, find an insurance agent to help you narrow it down and one who can answer questions. You may need to call more than one before you find someone you are happy with.

5) Do not accept as gospel what company agents tell you! One company agent assured me that all the policies covered the same thing. Most of their policies have some significant exclusions that you only discover when you read the actual application.

6) READ the application and all information you can find carefully!

7) Be honest. A company can cancel your policy if they discover you have lied to them.

8) Don’t let fear or feeling overwhelmed keep you from taking steps in a timely manner to arrange insurance. Putting it off won’t make it any easier.

9) When you do finally get the application(s) done, celebrate! You did something complicated and deserve to pat yourself on the back for navigating a tricky situation.

Good luck!