How to shop for affordable health insurance on the new exchanges

Michelle Singletary
Columnist September 27, 2013

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, one word keeps being bandied about — affordable.

White House officials were elated last week about a report from the Department of Health and Human Services that found that premiums in the new health-care marketplaces are priced lower than expected.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

The national average for the premium on a mid-tier plan, meaning one with the second-lowest cost, will be $328 a month before tax credits, 16 percent less than projections by the Congressional Budget Office. The administration keeps emphasizing that many people will qualify for a subsidy that will bring that price down. About six of 10 of uninsured consumers will be able to get coverage for $100 or less per month when taking into account premium tax credits and Medicaid coverage. However for others, especially those who don’t qualify for a tax break, a policy could be hundreds of dollars more per month.

So how will consumers shopping for health insurance determine what’s affordable to them?

When I asked a 29-year-old California man recently, he paused and said, “I think $150 or more a month would be out of my reach.”

I asked him how he came up with this figure.

“It’s just something at the moment I feel I can afford,” said Josh Nece, an uninsured restaurant server in Oakland. “Already I have so many things I have to pay a month just to survive.”

Following up, I then asked Nece how much he spends on his cellphone, cable or Internet service.

He knew right away where I was leading him. He doesn’t have cable. His cellphone and Internet cost about $100.

“I see,” he said. “Health insurance is something I need to survive. I guess I can’t afford to play the game that you hope nothing happens.”

I put the same question to an uninsured 19-year-old woman who was leaving a speech by President Obama in which he urged the largely young crowd to sign up for health insurance when the marketplaces open Oct. 1.

“I can afford $50 a month,” said Danielle Vest, a student at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland. Vest lives at home and works two jobs.

Obama told the students that on average, a 25-year-old in Maryland making $25,000 a year might pay about $80 a month for health coverage in the exchanges.

Would Vest pay that much?

“My mom says I better do it now,” she said. “So yes, I would pay that much. I guess.”

That’s the challenge that the administration and others who are encouraging people, especially young adults, to buy insurance are going to have. Affordability is such a fluid term when it comes to someone’s budget. Will people put an arbitrary limit on how much they are willing to spend? I suspect a lot of people will, particularly those who don’t have ongoing health issues.

Many Americans will be able to get insurance “for the cost of your cable bill, probably less than your cellphone bill,” Obama told the crowd.

When you shop in the marketplace, you will find four categories of plans – platinum, gold, silver and bronze.

Regardless of the level, all the plans will offer the same essential benefits. But you decide your premium level based on how much you want to pay out-of-pocket for health care services. If you opt to get a plan with a lower monthly premium, you’ll have higher personal costs. If you elect to pay a higher premium, you’ll pay less upfront.

There is a fifth option, a “catastrophic” plan, but it’s available only to people under 30 or those who would be exempt from the requirement to purchase coverage because the premium exceeds 8 percent of their income, the Kaiser Family Foundation points out. Catastrophic policies usually have lower premiums than a comprehensive plan, but you get covered only if you need a lot of care.

Here’s my advice. Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you know that you don’t save well, don’t get a plan with a high deductible. All three of my children have asthma. If I were shopping in the marketplace, I would go for gold or platinum. If the costs of those premiums are too high, opt for the second-lowest-priced plan.

I know your family budget may be tight — but what good is it to get a policy that you can’t use because you don’t have the money for co-pays or high deductibles?

We are a bargain-loving nation. So what’s reasonable to government officials may not be viewed affordable to folks who are healthy. But with the high cost of getting sick, many people will have to push their financial comfort zone. This isn’t a cellphone or cable subscription. Don’t bargain if you don’t have to with your health and your financial future.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com.

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