Seven ways to buy individual insurance in 2014

It is now the end of the second week after the launching of the ACA exchanges, and it seems that there is still a lot of confusion.  Some state exchanges seem to have ironed out the glitches in their system, but other states and the federally-run Healthcare.gov site still have confusing and crash-prone sites.  So I thought I would list the various ways that an individual can shop for and buy insurance right now.

1) On the appropriate exchange web site for your state:  As noted, these web sites are buggy and not always that easy to navigate. However, some are working well, and many people have already successfully signed up for their new insurance under Obamacare.

2) By submitting a paper application:  Yes, it is possible to sign up for insurance without a computer.  However, the process for getting and submitting a paper application may vary depending on where you live.  In California, you can download the paper application from the Covered California web site and send it in by regular mail. The mailing address is printed on page 2 of the form. 

3) By calling the toll free number for the exchange:  The exchange web sites have toll-free numbers posted that you can use to call and talk with their customer service.

4) By working with a navigator or certified application counselor:  A “navigator” or “certified application counselor” is a person who has been trained to help guide you through the process of applying for insurance.  She can help you determine if you are eligible for Medicaid or tax credit subsidies, and help you get enrolled.

5) By buying directly from the insurance company:  If you have selected a plan or company but find the exchange website frustrating, you can purchase directly from the insurance company. You can also contact the insurance company to ask particular questions that you may have.

Keep in mind that if you think that you are or may be eligible for a tax credit or subsidy, you must purchase a policy via your state’s exchange. You will be able to purchase an identical policy for the same price from the insurance company, but only policies purchased on the exchange will be eligible for tax credits.

However, many (but not all) insurance companies are willing to help you sign up for the exchange.  Just be sure that you know which plan you are signing up for.

6) By visiting a commercial web site which  functions as an insurance marketplace.  You can also shop for insurance and buy a policy at a web site such as  eHealth (www.ehealthinsurance.com).  You may find this to be a much more efficient way to browse and compare options.  However, keep in mind that these policies are purchased direct from the insurance companies rather than the exchanges and are not eligible for tax credits. 

Also, be sure that you know that the private health insurance marketing site you are visiting is legitimate.  EHealth is a well-established, publicly traded company [EHTH] – and there are at least five other online brokers that have approval to sell ACA-compliant policies.  However, the confusion over ACA / Obamacare also creates opportunities for fraud.    Here’s a website with some tips on how to check to see if a web site is legitimate.

Of course, you are always free to use the private website to compare plans, and then go to your state’s exchange web site or directly to the insurance company you choose to actually enroll.  At least until the kinks are worked out of most of the public exchange sites, this might be an easier way to explore and compare options.

Tip: If a web site uses the word “Obamacare” to try to sell you insurance, it probably is not legitimate.  Obamacare is simply a name that has caught on with the public to refer to the Affordable Care Act — but it is not the official name of the law, and it is highly unlikely that you would ever see the program referred to by that name in the main areas of any official web site.

7) By working with a licensed insurance broker or agent in  your state.  Private insurance agents are experienced at comparing plans and making recommendations to clients, and they are able to help you buy from the exchange as well as directly from the insurance companies.  They will not charge you a fee, as they earn their money from commissions paid by the insurance companies.

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