As someone without job-based health insurance, you might feel a pang of jealousy when your corporately-employed friends talk about enrolling in group health insurance through their HR departments. Without having a specific set of employer-sponsored plans to choose some, you might not even know where to begin the process of shopping for a major medical plan. Despite what you might think, however, enrolling in an Obamacare plan doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Whether you want to complete the signup on your own or get help from a professional, you have multiple options available to you as shop for health insurance in 2019.
State or Federal Marketplace
As we touched on above, the Affordable Care Act established insurance marketplaces where consumers can apply for major medical insurance. The federal government runs the main health insurance marketplace at HealthCare.gov, which is what most states use.
But some states have their own insurance marketplaces. Residents of those states must use those separate sites for finding major medical coverage. If you aren’t sure where to buy health insurance in your state, you can start your search at HealthCare.gov. After inputting your state, you’ll be directed to the appropriate marketplace for your location. Here’s a list of locations with their own exchange sites as of 2018:
- District of Columbia
- New York
- Rhode Island
To receive advance premium tax credits or cost sharing reductions, your transaction must be processed through the insurance marketplace or an approved affiliate. This doesn’t mean that doing your own shopping on the marketplace is the only way to take advantage of these savings; there are ways to get help from others and still apply for cost assistance. But you do need to buy a marketplace plan – even if it’s through a broker or private marketplace – to take advantage of any cost assistance options.
On the other hand, the government-run marketplaces don’t include every health insurance plan that’s available in an area. Some insurers don’t participate in the exchanges, so their plans don’t appear on marketplace websites. Plus, you might find a better deal off of the exchange if you don’t qualify for cost assistance. Whether or not you qualify for tax credits, it’s a good idea to shop around instead of limiting yourself to only the plans that are available through the Obamacare 2019 exchange.
Directly from an Insurer
The Obamacare system was designed to help people without employer-sponsored health insurance easily purchase coverage by creating marketplaces to shop for plans. But before those marketplaces existed, you always had the option to buy a health plan directly from an insurer. And that hasn’t changed. If you feel comfortable with the process and know which company you want to buy from, you can take care of the enrollment process entirely on your own. Online marketplaces managed by insurers put the necessary signup tools right at your fingertips.
Most insurers offer the option to buy a plan directly from them. Perhaps you’ve had a plan through a particular insurer in the past, or you’ve heard good things about an insurance company from family or friends. You can visit the company’s website to learn more about the plans that are being offered for 2019.
Various insurers offer different methods of purchasing their plans. You might be able to apply online, or the site might direct you to request a quote or call for more information about signing up.
Note that buying your plan straight from the insurance company could disqualify you from getting cost assistance for which you’d otherwise be eligible. If your income falls within the guidelines for tax subsidies, make sure that your signup method allows you to take advantage of any available savings. An insurance company representative can advise you about the best way to purchase a subsidized plan.
It’s possible that you’ll have a greater variety of plan options if you work with the insurer directly instead of going through the healthcare marketplace. Some insurers don’t participate in the marketplace at all. Others may offer only a limited portion of their plans on the exchange, and their off-exchange plans might feature lower prices.
Independent Online Seller
By shopping off-exchange websites, you can see plans that are available outside of the marketplace, but going through individual carrier sites one by one can be time-consuming and confusing. Independent online marketplaces allow you to compare ACA 2019 plans from an assortment of insurance companies. This can simplify the process of finding the best healthcare coverage for your needs.
Some online sellers work in conjunction with the government-run marketplace, so you can go through them to purchase a plan with subsidies or cost-sharing reductions. One advantage of shopping this way is that you can easily compare the costs and benefits of both on-exchange and off-exchange major medical insurance plans to find the best deal.
Independent marketplaces might not partner with every insurer offering plans in your area. If you’re not sure which plan works better for you, or you wonder whether there might be something even better out there, talk to an agent or marketplace rep about your options.
Get Help with the Process
You don’t have to shop for insurance entirely on your own if you don’t want to. Whether you’re new to purchasing Obamacare plans or you simply find it reassuring to receive input about your decisions, there are professionals who can help.
Marketplace Call Center
Instead of filling out a HealthCare.gov application online, you can speak to the representatives at the Marketplace Call Center. They can help you understand the plans that are available to you, and they can walk you step-by-step through the application process. Representatives will also make sure you’re getting the cost assistance available to you. Note that exchange representatives are not sales agents, so they can’t make recommendations like an agent or broker could.
Agents and Brokers
Insurance agents usually represent one health insurance company. If you know which company you want to purchase major medical coverage from, you can go through an agent to do it. The agent will receive a commission from your purchase.
Some agents can help you buy a plan through the healthcare marketplace so that you can sign up for subsidies and cost-sharing reductions. For this to be an option, agents must represent an insurer that participates in the exchange, and they must be approved to help consumers purchase marketplace plans.
Similar to agents, health insurance brokers usually offer plans from multiple companies. They may be able to help you compare on-exchange and off-exchange plans. As with agents, brokers receive a commission if you buy a plan through them. You can visit a broker in person or use an online portal.
Some brokers can help you enroll in marketplace plans so that you can take advantage of cost assistance programs. Not all brokers are qualified to do this, so if you’re eligible for subsidies, be sure to look for a broker who’s authorized to sell marketplace plans.
Every state has navigators who provide free help to those who are signing up for marketplace health plans. These are individuals or organizations that receive special training, which equips them to help consumers compare ACA 2019 plans, apply for cost assistance and complete the signup process. They must provide unbiased guidance. As with the Marketplace Call Center, these representatives are not sales agents and can’t steer you toward a particular plan. You may be able to find a navigator in your local community. However, the Trump administration has made changes that allow some navigators to maintain a digital presence in the community instead of being physically present.
No matter how you shop for health insurance in 2019, know that you’ve got plenty of options for finding the right major medical coverage for your needs. And if you need help, just ask. From government-run programs to independent broker sites, several entities exist to help you navigate the complex world of health insurance.