Thanks to today’s technology, you can purchase just about anything with a few taps on your keyboard or phone screen. It’s even possible to take care of important financial transactions online, such as shopping for and enrolling in health insurance.
In 2018, around 15.75 million Americans enrolled in major medical insurance plans offered on the federal and state marketplaces, as well as through private exchanges.
If you’re looking for individual health coverage, this article provides detailed steps for how to buy health insurance online, including:
- Determining your coverage needs
- Gathering quotes and comparing costs
- Comparing insurance company ratings
- Safely sharing information online and purchasing coverage
1. Determine your coverage needs
Before you even begin shopping, answering some basic questions about health insurance features can determine what type of insurance may work best for your situation – and help identify where you should shop for insurance online.
|Features||Questions to Ask||What to Do|
|Coverage Type||Do you need major medical health insurance for a long period of time?
Would a temporary coverage solution, such as short term health insurance, meet your needs instead?
|For major medical insurance, visit HealthCare.gov, your state marketplace, or private insurance exchanges.
If you need coverage for a limited period of time, you can easily get a short term health insurance quote.
|Payment Structure||Do you want lower premiums with higher out-of-pocket costs (deductibles and copayments)?||Major medical plans have four metal levels. Each has varying structures for sharing costs between you and the insurer, leading to different pricing and coverage levels.|
|Provider Networks||Do you have specific doctors and hospitals you want your insurance to cover?
Or are you open to seeing any provider?
|The managed care plan you choose may offer more or less provider choice flexibility.|
|Purchase Timing||Are you shopping for insurance during the annual open enrollment period or have you experienced a qualifying life event for special enrollment?
Are you looking for health insurance at another time of year?
|You can buy major medical insurance on the federal or state marketplaces only during open enrollment or in a special enrollment period.
Short term health insurance is available at any time of the year in most states. You also may purchase major medical insurance whenever you’d like through a private exchange.
2. Gather quotes and compare plans
Resources for comparing plans and premiums side-by-side depend on whether you want major medical insurance – plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) guidelines – or are interested in non-ACA coverage choices such as short term medical insurance.
Major Medical Coverage
The HealthCare.gov marketplace provides a plan comparison tool that helps you preview plans available to you, along with getting insurance quotes. Remember, you can only buy on the marketplace during open enrollment or if you qualify for a special enrollment period.
If you want to buy ACA-compliant plans at any time of the year or would like to see plans that may offer different choices from what you’re finding on the federal marketplace, HealthCare.gov offers a Plan Finder tool that’s free to use.
You also may visit an online private marketplace to compare plans offered by various health insurance companies.
Non-ACA Coverage Options
If you’ve gathered major medical insurance plan quotes, and are concerned that you may not be able to afford the premiums, you’re not alone.
In a March, 2019 survey over 60% of respondents indicated that affordability was their primary reason for purchasing a short term medical plan. Older consumers say they are motivated for affordability purposes, while younger consumers buy for the flexibility to have temporary coverage.
So what exactly is short term health insurance?
This type of plan does not qualify as ACA-compliant insurance – plans are not guaranteed-issue (meaning you can be denied coverage based on your health status), they generally do not cover pre-existing conditions and cover few, if any, essential health benefits. Instead, short term medical is designed to provide temporary coverage if you become ill or injured.
Depending on your state, you may keep short term health insurance for 30 to 364 days.
Advantages of Short Term Health Insurance
Short term health insurance usually covers unexpected medical costs related to some provider visits, hospital room and board, surgery and emergency room care.
Short term medical insurance advantages include:
Flexibility – both in how long you may keep your policy, as well as choice in selecting a coverage start date. You may even begin coverage within 24 hours of being approved.
Affordability – because short term health insurance has less coverage than benefits provided by ACA-compliant plans, premiums may be lower than premiums for an ACA marketplace plan. Premiums for short term health insurance vary based on the benefits you choose.
Find out how much short term health coverage could cost you and compare policy options by getting a quote (it just takes a minute to see your results).
3. Consider insurance company ratings for reliability
Do a quick internet search for “health insurance” and you’ll see listings for numerous insurance company websites. Even if you recognize some names of nationally-known insurance carriers, it’s still important to do your research so you know how to choose an insurance company.
If you’re wondering if you can rely on user ratings, consider this – rating agencies can provide you valuable information about an insurance company’s reliability in areas such as claims processing and customer service.
Here are a few resources you can check for insight into an insurance company:
Better Business Bureau (BBB)
Founded in 1912, the BBB is a non-government organization that provides free business reliability reviews which include:
- Graded rating – ranging from A+ (highest) to F (lowest)
- Transparency about whether or not the business is accredited with the BBB – accredited companies are viewed as legitimate and reputable businesses that engage in fair business practices
- Rating description – such as a summary of complaints, government actions involving the company, an advertising review and other information designed to assist shoppers in making informed decisions
The BBB also offers neutral party dispute resolution services when customers file a complaint against a BBB member organization.
You can view an insurance carrier’s business reliability reviews for free on BBB, in the “Find” search box.
AM Best Rating
Another way to search for reliable insurance companies is through resources provided by AM Best. The oldest and most widely recognized independent provider of ratings, financial and news focused specifically on the insurance industry, AM Best issues ratings on approximately 3,500 companies in over 90 countries across the globe.
Best’s Financial Strength Rating (FSR) scale provides an independent opinion of an insurance carrier’s financial strength and ability to meet its ongoing insurance policy and contract obligations. The FSR scale ranges from rating symbols of A+ (Superior) to D (Poor). A series of non-rating designations of E, F and S are assigned to carriers experiencing financial insolvency or other significant events impacting operations.
FSRs include a forecast on a company’s anticipated outlook over the next 12 to 36 months. Insurance carriers may post an AM Best rating on its website, or you may conduct a free search for a company’s rating on the AM Best Rating Services site.
4. Share only certain information when buying insurance online
Depending on the type of coverage you select, you may need to provide personal information during your application process.
Major Medical Enrollment
According to HealthCare.gov, be prepared to provide the following information when you enroll:
- Birth dates, addresses and coverage start dates for all applicants
- Estimate of your annual income
- Proof of citizenship or immigration status
- Adoption, foster care placement or court order as appropriate for dependents
ACA-compliant coverage is guaranteed issue, which means you don’t need to qualify for it. That also means you typically don’t have to provide personal health details, such as medical history (unless you are applying for certain marketplace exemptions).
Short Term Health Applications
Plans such as short term health insurance usually require you to complete a brief medical history because they are not guaranteed issue. Be prepared to share information which may include:
- Surgeries and hospitalizations, including dates they took place
- Medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, allergies, diabetes, etc.
- Prescription drugs taken in recent years, including start/end dates and dosage
- Doctor visits in recent years, including dates and reasons
- Irregular test results
- Family medical history, including cause of death for deceased family members
5. Use security precautions for your online health insurance purchase
No matter what type of product or service you purchase online, it’s a smart idea to follow general guidelines for internet security:
- Use a secured Internet connection when providing personal medical or financial information on your health insurance enrollment or application. Avoid using public Wi-Fi services (such as at a coffee shop or other place which advertises free Wi-Fi) for financial transactions.
- Check the website of the seller. Secure online transactions are available with websites that begin with “https://”. If you’re purchasing insurance on the federal or your state marketplace, look for the “.gov” or official government seal.
- Ask to review policy information before you commit to enrolling.
- Don’t feel pressured to make an instant purchase. Buying insurance is an important financial investment. Take time to review your choices before you make a decision.
For some people, talking with an agent is important. If you’ve done your research and want the reassurance of speaking with a knowledgeable insurance representative, don’t hesitate to find a licensed insurance agent.
Finally, if you are concerned you’ve provided personal financial or health information to someone you shouldn’t have, or suspect fraud or identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission’s online Complaint Assistant.
Summary + Next Steps
Buying health insurance online is an important financial decision. With so many insurance companies selling plans, it’s a good idea to determine what kind of coverage you want, and the features you need.
Then you can easily compare choices and premiums, research a company’s reputation, and follow online security guidelines to purchase your coverage. And keep in mind you can always connect with a licensed insurance agent for guidance.
ACA-compliant coverage is available on the federal (or your state) marketplace only during open enrollment or if you qualify for a special enrollment. But you can purchase ACA-compliant plans through a private exchange at any time during the year.
If you decide to pursue non-ACA coverage options for affordability, or the flexibility that they offer, you also can buy short term health insurance at any time during the year.