NEW YORK (AP) Every year, millions of Americans who have health insurance through employers lose it for one reason or another: They're laid off, they retire early, they head off to college.
Doing without something as basic as health insurance can be risky because an unexpected illness can devastate a family's finances for years. Private policies are available, but finding them takes research and they're often more costly than company group rates.
For someone who loses a job with a large or mid-size company, the best option is often a COBRA policy, said Alan R. Ziegler, president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, an organization of insurance and benefits specialists and financial planners.
COBRA, which takes its name from the Consolidated Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act of 1986 that created it, allows workers to continue their employer health care coverage after they've been laid off or voluntarily left a job, generally for up to 18 months.
''The ex-worker pays the full premium, so it can be costly,'' said Ziegler, chief executive of the Futures Funding Corp. in Rochester, N.Y. ''But you're buying quality coverage.''
If that isn't a possibility, he said, consider joining an organization that offers group health insurance as a member perk.
''I often urge people to look at their local Chamber of Commerce or other business group,'' Ziegler said. ''Or if any member of the family is in any affinity group say real estate agents or painting contractors or other occupational organizations check if there's a group policy available.''
Many consumers, however, end up trying to go it alone, and that generally means seeking bids from at least four or five carriers because premiums and coverage vary widely.
Insurance agents can help, or consumers can call local Blue Cross-Blue Shield organizations or HMOs as well as private carriers.
Carrie Holder, 41, of San Francisco, lost her health coverage when her dot-com employer went out of business while she was on maternity leave.
Holder and her husband, Bob Tracy, found a short-term insurance policy after comparing a number of them on the Internet insurance site www.ehealthinsurance.com. They paid about $150 a month to protect against any catastrophic illness, and used their savings to cover routine doctor's visits and prescriptions for themselves and their son John, who turns 2 this month.
''I called it my sleep-at-night coverage,'' she said. ''If any of us landed in the emergency room, it was covered.''
Holder has since found a small business health insurance policy for the corporate video production business she and her husband have started.
Gary Lauer, chief executive of eHealthInsurance Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., said the Internet makes it easier for families to compare the prices and properties of a variety of policies.
''For many people, there are affordable options out there,'' he said.
Lauer said a family of four, for example, could buy insurance for about $340 a month with a $500 deductible. The deductible is what the family pays out of pocket before the insured coverage kicks in. A single man in his mid-30s would pay about $100 a month for a similar policy, he said.
In general, the higher the premium, the more likely the policy is to have both physician and pharmaceutical coverage and a low deductible.
Lauer said he's seeing increased demand for health coverage from the self-employed some of them displaced workers who start businesses at home and from small businesses.
There are a variety of Internet sites where consumers can go for information:
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, maintains www.ahcpr.gov with good, basic information on the types of insurance available, definitions of terms and advice on how to shop for insurance.
The site www.healthinsuranceinfo.net, set up by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute, has consumer guides for all 50 states and the District of Columbia on getting and keeping health insurance, including protections for those with serious illnesses.
The Health Insurance Association of America, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., has an online ''Guide to Health Insurance'' at www.hiaa.org as well as a directory of state insurance agencies. The state agencies carry lists of insurance companies approved to operate in each state.
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