Tips on How to Find Health Insurance if You’re Underemployed or Unemployed

By Rebecca Lake
October 2, 2020

Having health insurance through your job can save you money on medical care, whether you’re getting routine checkups or have an ongoing health issue. But what happens when you lose your job or you’re not eligible for health insurance because of underemployment? 

Finding a solution to cover your health care needs that fits your budget can be stressful. But the good news is it’s possible to find health coverage without breaking the bank. We have your back and whether you’re out of work, your hours were reduced, or you work on a part-time basis, we have multiple options to help you navigate and find the best insurance for you.

  1. Keep your coverage through COBRA
  2. Purchase health insurance through the marketplace
  3. Consider enrolling on your spouse's health insurance plan
  4. Purchase health insurance directly
  5. Apply for Medicaid or Medicare
  6. Consider short-term health insurance
  7. Look into alternative group health insurance
  8. Enroll in a health care sharing plan
  9. Take advantage of health care discount programs
  10. Health Insurance Doesn't Have to Be Out of Reach

Keep your coverage through COBRA

💰💰💰💰  Best for: Recently laid off and can afford to continue your employer’s coverage

If you’ve been laid off or become unemployed, you may be able to continue with your employer’s health insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, better known as COBRA. Assuming you qualify, you could stay covered by your employer’s group plan for up to 18 months after leaving your job

That’s great news if you were happy with your employer’s insurance,, but there’s a catch: COBRA coverage shifts the responsibility for paying premiums to you and it’s possible that you may be required to pay the entire amount due, up to 102% of the cost to the plan. 

If you’ve lost your job and don’t have another position lined up right away, it’s possible that COBRA coverage isn’t the best route for your budget. but you do have a bit of time to decide. Normally, you’d have 60 days after losing your employer’s coverage to elect COBRA coverage. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, you now have until 60 days after the COVID-19 national emergency ends to decide. This is an advantage as it means you have more time to weigh other -potentially less expensive – health insurance options before making a full commitment.

Purchase health insurance through the marketplace

💰💰💰 Best for: Unemployed or underemployed 

The health insurance marketplace allows you to compare health insurance plans – including high deductible plans, from participating providers in your state. 

Compared to COBRA coverage, purchasing health insurance through the marketplace could be less expensive. And if you qualify for a health care subsidy, that could bring the cost down even further. 

Whether you qualify for help with health insurance costs depends on the state you live in, your household size, and your income. There’s a handy online calculator you can use to estimate your subsidy amounts through the marketplace.

Note that your actual subsidy amount may be different if your income fluctuates throughout the year. And if you receive too large of a subsidy, you may have to pay some or all of it back at tax time. 

Consider enrolling on your spouse's health insurance plan

💰💰 Best for: Have access to a spouse’s health care plan

If you’re married, the simplest way to get health insurance while unemployed may be joining your spouse’s plan. The key thing to consider is what type of coverage you’ll get and how much it will cost. 

Comparing the coverage you could receive through your spouse’s plan to what you had previously can help you get a clear perspective on whether it makes sense as a short- or long-term fix. For example, even if you hope to find something better later, you could enroll in the plan temporarily to avoid any health insurance gaps. 

Allowing your coverage to lapse could mean higher out of pocket costs if you get sick or injured and rack up medical bills. Additionally, you could face a penalty fee if you live in a state where health insurance is still mandated, such as New Jersey or Massachusetts. 

Purchase health insurance directly

💰💰 Best for: Unemployed or underemployed

Another option is to research the costs of buying insurance directly. Ordinarily, you’d have to wait for an open enrollment period to apply for coverage but special rules currently exist as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, it may be possible to qualify for a special enrollment period if you lost your job in the past 60 days or expect to lose your job in the next 60 days. You may also qualify if you lost your job more than 60 days ago but after January 1 and were unable to enroll in another health insurance option because of the COVID-19 national emergency.

Finding direct coverage takes a little research since options can vary by state. The easiest method may be performing a Google search for health insurance providers in your state. Or, if you know that a specific insurer offers direct coverage where you live you could visit their website or reach out by phone to discuss available plans and rates.  

 

Be aware that voluntarily dropping your health insurance coverage makes you ineligible for the special enrollment period unless you experienced a drop in income. 

Apply for Medicaid or Medicare

💰 Best for: Low-income individuals and families; Seniors aged 65 or older (for Medicare) 

Medicaid and Medicare are two government-sponsored programs that can help provide health insurance coverage to low-income individuals and families. If you’re unemployed and your income has dropped substantially, either program could be an affordable option to consider. 

It’s important to note how they differ, however. Medicaid provides health care coverage for:

  • Some low-income individuals
  • Families
  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • The elderly
  • People with disabilities

Eligibility for Medicaid is primarily based on your age, household size, income, disability status and assets. Medicare, on the other hand, is available to people who are age 65 or older, younger people with disabilities and people with End Stage Renal Failure. 

You can apply for Medicare online but you’ll need to contact your local department of social services or department of health and human services to apply for Medicaid. 

 

While it's possible that you may have zero out-of-pocket costs for Medicaid coverage and Medicare Part A or Part C, there are premiums for Medicare Parts B and D.

Consider short-term health insurance

💰 Best for: People who only need health insurance temporarily 

Short-term health insurance is just that—health insurance that covers you for a short period of time. Depending on the policy, that may be anywhere from 1-12 months

This could be one option for getting health coverage for unemployed or underemployed people, but it can be an expensive one compared to joining a spouse’s plan or getting Medicaid. 

Aside from potentially paying higher premiums, there are some other drawbacks to short-term health insurance:

  • Pre-existing conditions may not be covered
  • You may need to complete a medical questionnaire or exam to get coverage
  • Coverage can vary from policy to policy

Also, keep in mind that short-term health insurance plans may not be offered in your state. 

Look into alternative group health insurance

💰 Best for: People who are comfortable with lower-cost insurance that may be less comprehensive 

If you’re interested in getting group health coverage for unemployed or underemployed workers, COBRA isn’t the only option. You may also be able to access group health benefits through membership in a professional or social organization. 

For example, you might be able to get covered if you’re a member of your college or university’s alumni association. Or if you belong to a fraternal organization, such as the Elks Lodge, you may be able to get group health or dental insurance benefits as part of your membership. 

Keep in mind that this type of insurance may not be as comprehensive as group health insurance from an employer. But this could be another low-cost way to get covered while you’re out of work or if your income is down from reduced hours.

Enroll in a health care sharing plan

💰 Best for: People who tend to need fewer doctor visits and want to pay less than traditional premiums 

Health care sharing isn’t exactly the same as health insurance. But it’s an alternative to consider if you’ve exhausted all the other options for getting coverage. 

With health care sharing programs, you pay at a regular premium. That premium is then pooled with the premiums of other members. When a member has a medical bill to pay, the money to cover it comes from the premium pool. 

The advantage of health care sharing is that it can be much less expensive compared to purchasing health insurance outright. But it’s important to compare plans carefully, as some have certain requirements you need to meet with regard to religious affiliation and there may be limits on which medical expenses can be shared. 

Take advantage of health care discount programs

💰 Best for: People who are comfortable paying out of pocket for health care 

Health care discount plans are one more way to manage your health care needs without going broke. Health care discount plans and dental discount plans allow you to pay less for medical care out of pocket when you enroll.

You choose a plan to sign up for, depending on how much you want to pay, how many people in your household you need to cover and what services you’d like access to. You then pay an upfront fee or monthly premium to cover your cost of enrollment. Then when you visit participating health care providers you get access to covered services at a discount. 

Again, this isn’t the same as having regular health insurance. But it can help you save money on routine doctor, dental or vision visits, depending on what’s included with your plan.

Health Insurance Doesn't Have to Be Out of Reach

Getting health insurance following a job loss is important if you want to keep doctor bills from delivering a hit to your bank account. Looking at every option to compare coverage and cost can help you find the one that best fits your needs and budget. And once you get back to work, you can consider whether it makes sense to change your coverage if it means helping you save money.

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Rebecca Lake has been writing about personal finance and business for nearly a decade. Her work has been featured on CreditCards.com, Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and other personal finance sites.

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