How to Choose a Health Insurance Plan

Sign on with the health insurance provided by your employer: It is likely to be the cheapest option you can find. Your employer's carrier may have more than one option for you to choose from (HMO, preferred). If you're self-employed or if your company doesn't offer insurance, you'll have to search for your own insurance.

Assess your needs, taking into account your current use of health care and your medical expenses for the near future, and decide what services are most important to you and your family. Ask about dependents' coverage. Factor in how much you can afford to spend on monthly premiums and co-payments. If you're single and healthy, your health plan needs will be very different from those of a family with three young children.

Compare benefits and coverage of key items like monthly premiums, deductibles, co-payments, co-insurance rates, costs for seeing out-of-network providers, preventive care, physical exams, immunizations and the like. Other services that are of interest to your family could include fertility services, mental health coverage, nursing care and long-term care.

Ask lots of questions: Are your current providers part of this plan? Do you need referrals for specialist visits? How easy is it to change doctors? What hospitals and facilities can you use as part of the plan? What are the procedures for having emergency room treatment approved?

Find out if benefits are limited for preexisting conditions, or if you have to wait for a period of time before you're fully covered. Some plans may completely exclude coverage of preexisting conditions.

Research whether there is a fair appeals process available if the company denies treatment, and if these appeals are reviewed by an external, independent agency. Is there a high turnover rate among doctors in the plan? Check if the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA.org) accredits the plan; the Pacific Business Group on Health (HealthScope.org) also offers information on health plans.

Pick a plan that best matches your needs and priorities based on thorough research. Read all materials and call the health plan representative or conduct Internet research to get any information you are missing. Discuss pre-existing conditions and flexspending plans before making a decision.

Investigate long-term care insurance. The rising cost of health care and elderly care can demolish your savings if you are incapacitated for long. The best time to buy it is when you hit your 40s.