Tips for Buying Health Insurance

Budnick, Nick, "5 things you need to when buying health insurance," The Oregonian, November 5, 2015. Full Article Available Here

Here are some tips for assessing how your policy is changing and looking for alternatives on the market.

1. Take note of your health care now.

If you are trying to get a new 2016 plan in place by January, the deadlines will be upon you before you know it.

You need to prepare.

Shopping for the best plan means more than looking up the cheapest premium. Far more important is your total cost of health care under a given plan. What sort of safety net best fits your personality, family and needs?

Now is the time to sit down with a pen, paper or keyboard and brainstorm about your health care. Here are some questions you need to answer.

• How important is your doctor to you? How does the cost of staying with the same doctor compare with choosing an insurer that doesn't contract with your doctor?

• Are you on prescription medications? How much is your co-pay? Will your plan cover your medication at the same rate next year?

• Are there surgeries or medical procedures you or your family plan to get in the coming year? Is there something you've been putting off?

• Would changing plans interrupt an ongoing treatment or hurt your ability to pay for it?

• If you have more than one person in your family, how do your needs differ?

You don't need to perfectly answer every question. But sorting through your situation will help you as you jump into the market. You'll be ready to talk to an agent and start shopping.

2. Check your income.

As many as 18,000 Oregonians left money on the table when they selected an insurance plan last year. That's almost one in every 13 Oregonians who bought a private plan and were not on Medicare.

In some cases, these people lost out on big money.

People making 250 percent of the federal poverty level or less can enjoy lucrative increases in benefits or cost-sharing reductions as long as they select a "silver" level plan when they shop.

Since last year, federal law has required labeling plans bronze, silver, gold or platinum so consumers know the level of benefits they are buying.

Nearly 18,000 people bought a bronze plan, even though paying a little more might have saved significant cash over the course of the year.

This is just one reason why estimating how much you will likely make in the coming year is important to your preparation.

The cut-off for cost-sharing reduction is as much as $39,825 for a two-person household.

In addition to that benefit, there are tax credits available for those making up to four times the federal poverty level. These can be used in advance to buy down your monthly premium, or taken at the end of the year.

A family of four can make up to $97,000 and still qualify for the credits.

If you decide to tap the credits, you should buy your insurance through the federal website, or the state version of the portal,

3. Get an agent — a good one.

Consulting an insurance agent to help you assess your health plan options is a no-brainer. And they are swamped this time of year, so you need to call one now.

The advice costs you nothing. Insurers pay agents per member they enroll. Your premium won't go up if you use one.

A good agent can help you negotiate some of the hidden fine print in the policies out there, and may help you if problems come up later in the year.

But while many Oregon insurance agents offer health insurance advice, their experience and knowledge varies.

Some specialize in only a couple of insurers, some don't know how to use the health insurance exchange, while others don't know much about health insurance, period. It may take multiple calls or meetings to find one you like. It's worth looking at websites and seeing what agents are focused on health insurance and which are not.

When you do talk to an agent, consider it their audition, and ask questions:

  • How big a portion of their business is health insurance? If their true love is property/casualty, you might want to find a different agent.
  • How many health insurers do they contract with? Are they independent? There are seven insurers statewide, and nine in greater Portand. Some have 2016 rates that are not competitive. A truly independent agent will work with at least four competitive insurers, such as Providence, Moda, Oregon's Health CO-OP and Regence.
  • Are they trained and certified? Using an agent certified for is crucial if your household income is low enough to qualify for tax credits and other subsidies. But other certifications and professional associations are good, too. They show a level of dedication as well as a support network for information and resources.
  • Are they familiar with the state's consumer cost-sharing tool? This year for the first time, the state has released a spreadsheet ( with cost-sharing details for every 2016 health insurance policy sold in Oregon, both on and off the exchange. Any consumer can use it to find the plan best suited to their needs, but having an agent to guide you won't hurt.

As they answer your questions, listen to how your agent talks to you, not just what they say.

"Make sure you're connecting with them. Make sure that they are listening to your situation. Are they doing the research, looking up your doctors and medications?" says Lisa Lettenmaier, a broker and co-owner of Health Source NW in Tigard. "There should be a dialogue."

4. Check your meds.

Sometimes the bad news comes from your pharmacist: Your prescription medication co-pay is going up.

Insurers are increasingly transferring drug costs to consumers. Each plan has a list of drugs typically called a formulary or preferred drug list.

Even if you have the same plan, your formulary can change during the year. Your insurer's website should include a medication lookup for 2016. If it doesn't, call their help line to see if your share of the cost will go up next year.

When your drug is not on the list, some policies don't credit your share of the cost to your deductible — the threshold of spending at which your insurer's coverage is supposed to kick in — or to your out-of-pocket maximum spending cap. Not good.

Lettenmaier uses a shortcut, called Fingertip Formulary: It's free, and it lets you compare up to five plans at a time to see how a drug is covered. Though accuracy is not guaranteed, she says she has encountered no problems.

Other ways to save money include ordering three months of a medication in advance, or getting a double dose and using a pill cutter to cut it in half. Getting creative with generics, at times, can save you a bundle.

Some agents also recommend checking for coupons and other deals.

5. Know your network

The extent to which you value your primary care doctor or nurse practitioner will be a key for you as you shop for plans.

Most insurers have a provider search on their website. But don't stop there. Insurers often offer multiple networks used by different plans.

To make sure you're looking at the right network, double-check with your doctor.

Also, if you expect to go to the hospital or see a different provider for surgeries or procedures in the coming year, you should see if they are in your network as well.

Then study your plan before you enroll. Your agent may throw around terms like EPO (exclusive provider organization), PPO (preferred provider organization) and HMO (health maintenance organization) to describe them, but read the fine print, as insurers use these terms differently.

Going out-of-network can mean paying several times as much for a given procedure. Some plans won't cover it at all.

And yet, moving to a narrow network will be in many people's future, says Elma Friend of Willamette Valley Benefits in Milwaukie.

"With the premiums going as high as they are going, consumers are having to make that difficult choice," she said. "I don't think our consumers are ready for that, but they're going to have to be. They can't have everything anymore."

ResourcesTaylor KaneComment