The healthcare.gov site is a good place to compare plans, but it’s not where you buy an insurance plan. When you click "buy," the exchange/marketplace will redirect you to the insurance company’s website where you purchase the plan directly from that company.
Want my advice? Get an insurance agent before you click "buy." With an insurance agent you get the same pricing as if you were working directly with the insurance company except you'll have some guidance in making an informed decision. Think of an agent as a free assistant that’ll explain your options and help you choose the right plan. At worst, you’ll pay a small commission that is more than made up for by getting good advice and choosing the right policy.
For example, for a middle-aged man needing health insurance in Florida, the healthcare.gov site generated 52 different plans! Twelve Bronze, 16 Silver, 14 Gold and 10 Platinum. That's a lot of details to work through. Where do you start? What do those names even mean? A health insurance agent spends time on these details every day and will be able to help you narrow down your options.
There are two types of agents: Captive (or direct agents) and independent agents. A captive agent sells policies exclusively for one company, and you'll usually see that company's logo on their emails and signage. An independent agent can write policies for a variety of different companies. But either way, both usually receive a commission from the insurance company that issues the policy.
If you own a business with employees, you may want the help of an insurance broker. You pay the broker a fee to search the local market for the policy with the most favorable terms for your business.
Like hiring anyone, ask your friends for referrals. Be sure to ask your friends why they recommend that particular agent. Don't forget that members of trade associations for your particular line of work may be able to suggest an agent, too.
For me, I want an agent who communicates really well. I want an agent who follows up with me, like anyone who is good at sales would do. I don’t want an agent who pushes me to have in-person meetings. I want a Skype meeting or phone calls.
New insurance plans are released in October. So I want an agent who will follow up with me before the end of the year and discuss the available insurance plans.
An agent has the experience to look for wrinkles in plans. One of the Affordable Care Act's initiatives was to make health care plans easier to understand. I don’t know if they actually accomplished that task because it’s still tough weighing the options.
Make sure that your potential agent is licensed to practice in your state. You can also check the National Association of Insurance Commissioners site to see if a particular company has had complaints filed against them.
Be aware that while the healthcare.gov site may present you with many different plans, your choice of providers may be limited. For instance, in our example with the middle-aged man in Florida, there were 52 plans, but all came from Florida Blue/Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Keep in mind that the healthcare.gov site has a feature for finding Local Help. You input your zip code and it provides a list of navigators, assisters and organizations like your local department of health that may be able to help you make the right policy choices.