Saturday, March 13, 2004

Health insurance shopping

My SO is currently out of work, and has been since moving out to California in January. Since COBRA coverage would have cost in excess of $400 a month, we've been looking for heath insurance on our own.

Shopping for insurance has been frustrating. The array of choices available is rather baffling, and while we understand most of the terminology employed, calculating the expected cost of each plan given certain medical circumstances has been nearly impossible. For instance, we've been trying to calculate the annual cost of each plan including four normal office visits and a monthly prescription medication, and even given this relatively simple scenario it's been extremely difficult to come up with good cost estimates for many insurers. A big problem has been that we haven't found any good data regarding how much office visits cost without insurance (and, being new to the area, we don't have a regular doctor we can call to ask).

There are six different health insurance companies providing HMO service to individuals in California that we've found currently (Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, Pacificare, and Universal Care). Each of these companies usually offers at least two HMO plans and some PPO plans; some offer much more. At Pacificare there are three HMO plans and seven PPO plans (counting different deductibles), and at Blue Cross there are two HMO plans and six different PPO plans. Attempting to compare the impact of the various deductible levels and other plan differences has become a daunting task.

While I'm always a fan of more choice in matters, making an informed choice regarding health insurance here seems very difficult. Most of the insurers don't post the full details of their coverage online, or at least make it difficult to discover the details. Even simple things like the insurer's formulary of drugs is difficult to find; I still haven't found Kaiser Permanente's or Blue Shield's formularies.

The California state government's Office of the Patient Advocate has a 2003 HMO report card that rates the quality of various HMOs, but even that is of limited use since most of the insurers rate relatively similarly in many categories. However, the site breaks down insurers by county, so it's good to at least show what companies serve our area.

Thanks for enduring this rant ...

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