Here are three tasks you can do this month that will make the job of shopping for health insurance easier and more understandable.
1. Use the Web. Kick-off your shopping by heading to your state's insurance website. (Go to the National Association of Insurance Commissioner's website, naic.org, for a list of state sites.) Many will list companies available in your area, prices for both individual and family plans, any lower cost options your state offers if you meet certain income requirements, and tips on the latest scams and rip-offs to avoid.
Then, head to some privately run sites to get an idea of prices out there. For example, according to comparison from eHealth Insurance.com, the online market leader, a healthy family of four (30-something parents and school-age kids) can get a major medical plan—with a $1,000 annual deductible, $30 co-pay per doctor visit and $10 co-pay for generic drugs—for about $400 a month. (Note: Quoted rates are just a guide to help you shop. To actually get the rates you find, you'll have to answer several health questions and open up your medical records. Depending on your medical history, an insurer may want to charge a higher rate or exclude existing conditions.)
2. Then, take your Web information to a pro. An insurance broker can be a huge help. They can do the legwork to find a well-suited insurance company (some insurers aren't in online databases), help you shop and negotiate for the best rates, and explain the ins and outs of your plan. To find a reputable broker, check credentials with either the National Association of Insurance Underwriters (nahu.org) or the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (naic.org). You also want to make sure your broker has a large "book," the industry term for the network of providers he or she works with. More options mean a better deal and a better fit.
Before signing up with any company, however, see for yourself whether its customers have lodged a lot of complaints at the Consumer Information Source section on naic.org. You can also check quality ratings at ncqa.org, the National Committee for Quality Assurance site.
3. Consider the alternatives. A health savings account is a great option for people who don't need much healthcare. It goes hand-in-hand with an insurance policy that has a high deductible ($1,100 for individuals; $2,200 for families), but low premiums. The money you save on premiums each month can be deposited into the HSA Account pre-tax, where it grows tax-deferred. You then use it to pay for any unexpected medical expenses. The bonus? Once you turn 65, you can withdraw any money you didn't use and spend it on anything you want, including funding your retirement.
If you're self-employed, be sure to check with professional groups, your alumni association and even your local chamber of commerce to find less expensive group coverage. Or you can check out the group purchasing alliances that business owners in several areas have created to purchase health insurance at more reasonable rates. To find one of these coalitions, visit your state department of insurance website.