Healthcare Signup Made Easy

Smart shoppers know it pays to shop around -- especially when it comes to health insurance. And with the February 15 deadline rapidly approaching for the Affordable Care Act plans, this is a project you can't postpone.
01/30/2015 10:42 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Smart shoppers know it pays to shop around -- especially when it comes to health insurance. And with the February 15 deadline rapidly approaching for the Affordable Care Act plans, this is a project you can't postpone.

The federal government says that last year more than 7 million people enrolled, despite glitches in the process. This year it appears to be going smoothly so far -- but many will wait until the last minute to shop -- or re-shop -- for health insurance. Don't get caught in the crunch.

Where to Shop

There may be more -- and better -- choices than you know. Most people are by now aware of the federal Healthcare.gov website, which provides information about how much the government will subsidize your premium, based on your income last year and your estimate of 2015 income. There are also more than a dozen state sites, which let you search among plans in your state of residence.

But did you know that you can shop online at private insurance exchanges that offer the same policies, more choices and more services, such as searching and signing up on your mobile device -- or individualized personal help to guide you through the choices at their websites?

Most people aren't aware that they can shop outside the Healthcare.gov website -- at no additional cost or fee, whether they are shopping for a subsidized policy or simply a policy that is health reform-compliant in the bronze, silver, gold, platinum and catastrophic categories. In fact, insurance buyers may benefit by having a far greater choice of nonsubsidized policies.

For example, eHealthInsurance.com says it can help consumers choose from a total of 6,429 plans -- including more than 1,900 plans not available for the 33 states that use Healthcare.gov. Since approximately 13 percent of people who purchased a plan at Healthcare.gov last year did not qualify for a subsidy, it's easy to assume that they might have had a better and wider choice elsewhere.

Private insurance marketplaces like eHealthInsurance.com and GoHealth.com are compensated by the insurers, just as the government exchanges are, so there is no difference in price to the consumer.

How to Choose

It's easy to get frozen at the very start. How can you find out if you qualify for a federal subsidy to reduce your premiums? What features should you compare? Answers to those important questions could mean a difference of hundreds of dollars a month in your premium payments -- or thousands of dollars in deductibles and other costs should you need to use your insurance for a major illness or accident.

Step 1: Figure out whether you are qualified, based on expected income in 2015, for a federal subsidy for your monthly insurance premium. This will require some careful estimation because if you ultimately earn more than you project on your application, the government will require partial repayment of the subsidy at the end of the year.

You can get an immediate estimate of your subsidy at both federal and private marketplaces. At eHealthInsurance.com, you need to input your zip code, gender, birth date, number of dependents on your tax return, and an estimate of your modified adjusted gross income (taxable income) for the current year. Instantly, you'll be given an estimate of the monthly or annual dollar amount of your subsidy. Applying for the subsidy takes as little as five minutes. The next step is the policy selection process.

Step 2: The most obvious basis on which to compare policies is price -- the monthly premium (with or without a subsidy). But there are other components to this decision, including: deductibles, copays, cost of doctor visits, out-of-pocket maximums, and prescription drug coverage. The online tool at eHealthInsurance.com lets you compare up to four policies side-by-side to find out the best value.

And their search tool lets you enter a physician's name to see if your doc accepts the policy you are about to choose.

Making Application

The one benefit of the Affordable Care Act is that it has categorized policies and coverages, thus making it easier to compare and shop online, either at the federal site or private exchanges. In fact, at eHealthInsurance.com you can manage the entire process -- including applying for the subsidy and searching and applying for a policy -- using your iPhone or Android app while riding the bus to work! Or you can use their toll-free number to talk to an expert.

So start now and you'll easily find the best policy for you -- before the February 15 deadline. That's the Savage Truth.