Do your research before open enrollment
You can buy an individual health plan that meets government standards for coverage only during the annual open enrollment period, unless you have a special circumstance, such as getting married or having a baby, which creates a special enrollment period.
Don't wait until the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time to research options and apply. If you miss open enrollment, you could face a tax penalty if you go without coverage.
Assess your health care needs
Your needs should influence the type of plan you choose. The right health plan for your neighbor might not be the right plan for you. Ask yourself some questions to determine your needs:
How often do you need to see the doctor?
What types of healthcare will you need in the next year?
What prescription drugs do you take?
What hospitals and doctors do you want to see?
Investigate health plans on your state marketplace
The federal government's website has links to state health insurance marketplaces. If your income qualifies you for premium discounts or lower out-of-pocket costs, the only way to get them is by purchasing a health plan through the marketplace. Fill out the application to see if you're eligible for financial assistance and to compare health plans from private insurance companies in your area.
Health plans sold in the marketplaces are categorized according to how much of the health care costs the insurer pays and how much the consumer pays. Generally the higher the out-of-pocket costs -- the more you pay in deductibles, coinsurance and copayments -- the lower the premium.
Types of health plans
Here are the health plan categories, going from those with the least to most expensive premiums:
Bronze: The insurer pays an average of 60 percent of your health care costs; you pay 40 percent.
Silver: The insurer pays 70 percent; you pay 30 percent.
Car insurance rates
Gold: The insurer pays 80 percent; you pay 20 percent.
Platinum: The insurer pays 90 percent; you pay 10 percent.
Keep in mind these are general categories, and the projected out-of-pocket costs are averages. Plans in the same metal category might achieve the cost split in different ways. Two Bronze plans, for instance, might have different deductibles and co-insurance levels, even though their overall out-of-pocket costs are projected to be the same.
Plans in the same metal level might also be structured differently. One Bronze plan might be a health maintenance organization, and another might be a preferred provider organization. Depending on the type of plan, you might have free access to any provider in your network or you might need to get a referral from a primary care physician.
You can buy marketplace plans over the phone, through paper applications or online. Some states also hold enrollment fairs.
In addition, short-term health plans, also called catastrophic health plans are available to anyone in 2019. Some states don't allow these plans, which have low premiums and low coverage. Short-term plans don't have to cover basics found in regular health plans, such as maternity, prescription drug and mental health coverage.
Find out what health insurance companies are offering outside the marketplaces
There are plenty of health plans available directly from insurers, without going through a marketplace. In fact, some insurers are only selling policies outside the marketplace in some states.
Plans sold outside the marketplace are still categorized by metal tiers, and they still must offer the same minimum benefits to qualify as sufficient coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But you might find a plan with a wider network or a better price. Remember, though, you cannot qualify for tax credits for premium discounts when you buy outside the marketplace.
You can purchase health insurance directly from a health insurance company, a website that sells coverage from different carriers or through a health insurance agent. The National Association of Health Underwriters has a "find an agent" tool on its website.
Understand and compare how health plans are structured
Know the differences between a health maintenance organization (HMO), preferred provider organization (PPO), point of service (POS) plan and high-deductible health plan with a health savings account.
What is a life policy
With an HMO, you choose a primary care physician who coordinates your care, and generally you're limited to a network of doctors and hospitals. You typically pay a low copayment for each office visit. The plan generally doesn't cover care outside of the network except in special circumstances.
A PPO gives you more flexibility than an HMO. You can see specialists without a referral from a primary care physician. The plan pays a higher percentage of costs if you see doctors in the network, but still provides some coverage for services outside the network.
A POS plan is a little of both. It operates like an HMO if you stay within the network, but gives you the option of using out-of-network doctors. Typically a POS plan requires you to get a referral to see a doctor outside of the network.
A high-deductible health plan paired with a health savings account, or HSA, features a (as the name implies) high deductible before coverage begins. You can use money from the HSA for out-of-pocket medical expenses. Contributions you make to the account are tax deductible, and unused money rolls over to the next year. You get to keep the account even if you change health plans, and you can use the money for non-medical expenses in retirement.
Compare provider networks and benefits
Dig into the details of what the health plans cover. For instance, how will the plan cover the prescription drugs you take? Make sure the healthcare providers you want to use are in the plan's network. Otherwise you will pay more out of pocket or may not have coverage to see them.
Crunch the numbers
In addition to reviewing the premium you'll pay for the plan, estimate how much you'll pay out of pocket for the amount of healthcare you expect to use in the next year.
If you rarely need medical care, it probably makes more sense to choose a plan with a higher deductible and lower premium than to pay a high premium for a plan with a low deductible.
Tell us your thoughts