December 16, 2016

'Taking it in the shorts' 2016: Savings and confusion during open enrollment

It’s that time of year again — the open enrollment period for health insurance.

Since I am self-employed for one part-time job, and can only work 19 hours per week for my other part-time job (so Sparty does not have to give me any benefits), I am among the 10 percent of Americans who need to directly purchase health insurance. Having been informed that the monthly premium for my current plan will increase from $331.59 to $469.48 in 2017, I decided to shop around for something else.

As it has become for most Americans buying their own health insurance, a premium increase is nothing new for me. In fact, it has become an annual tradition. Back when I returned to Iowa in 2010 and bought a personal plan for the first time, my monthly premium was just shy of $255. Ever since, it has been trending upward:

• Mid-2011: $286.25
• Mid-2012: $316.35
• Mid-2013: $284.75
• 2014: $301.05
• 2015: $321.75

Last year, I ditched the grandfathered, pre-ACA plan I chose in 2010 and replaced it with an ACA-compliant plan. Though my co-pay increased, the premium was about the same and the provider costs I was responsible for plummeted.

Though premiums are always provided as a monthly cost, I don’t pay my premium monthly. Instead, I pay it semi-annually. That means I send checks to Wellmark for about $2,000 twice a year. (Fun, fun, fun!) Needless to say, when I recently received a bill reflecting the increased premium for 2017 — $2,816.88 for six months of coverage — I thought to myself, “There have to be cheaper options out there.”

Thankfully, there are.

After perusing Wellmark’s list of plans online (which seem to be completely different from those offered last year) and patiently entering the same information over and over again on Wellmark’s uncooperative site (I eventually switched to Safari from Firefox and finally got it to work), I picked something a little cheaper. However, there’s a potentially expensive catch: it’s a plan with a health savings account.

What’s an HSA? It’s essentially a savings account for health care costs. One can contribute money to the HSA and then use it later for eligible health expenses. It accrues interest much like a savings account, and unused money rolls over every year. But what’s covered by insurance and what will I need to pay myself (essentially out-of-pocket regardless of whether the money comes from my HSA or not)? Do I absolutely need to put money in the HSA? There’s a clearly stated maximum contribution level, but is there a minimum? Is there a minimum balance required by the financial institution (the HSA will be operated by a bank, not the insurer)? All are questions that don’t have any answers, at least online. (Links to information on the Wellmark site are broken.) Learning the answers as I go may be a costly adventure and I could be searching for a different plan on Wellmark’s site next year. (On the other hand, it could turn out to be a very good decision.)

The bottom line, though, is I decreased my monthly premium for 2017 to $425.22 — at least for now. (Wellmark is known to increase premiums mid-year.) It’s still a lot more than I was paying, but less than what I could be paying.

Keep in mind, I am only buying insurance for myself — a relatively healthy, 34-year old, single, childless man. Besides appointments to diagnose overuse injuries from running, and any subsequent therapy, I haven’t seen doctors very often in the last six years. I can probably count on one hand the number of prescriptions I have received over the same period — all of them brief and usually with no refills. If I’m paying over $5,100 a year to insure myself, I can’t even image what it would cost with a spouse and multiple kids.

Also, this is just for health coverage — it does not cover dental or vision. Those I pay for out-of-pocket.

Fun, fun, fun!

Sure, I could have signed up for a subsidized plan through HealthCare.gov — but that’s just not my thing. Thinking about it now, though, I suppose I should have. If the federal government is offering to pay part of my health insurance, why not let it, especially since all levels of government offer oodles of tax breaks and benefits to developers and corporations? Maybe I’ll do that next year … if the subsidies are still available.