This story is part of Priced Out, CNET’s coverage of how real people are coping with the high cost of living in the US.
Evan Stewart has epilepsy, so going a day without health insurance isn’t an option. When he left his job in the medical field to tour with his musical band, he was able to keep his benefits through COBRA. That meant a large part of his income — $800 a month — went toward keeping that coverage until he qualified for another insurance plan with his new employer.
The cost wasn’t bad considering the alternative. “If a seizure lasts me more than five minutes, an ambulance has to come to my house, and then I’ll probably go to the emergency room,” said Stewart, who lives in Seattle. “Without insurance, the ambulance ride would bankrupt me, and the hospital stay would keep me in medical debt for the rest of my life.”
Stewart was nervous about switching his job because he didn’t want to give up his health care benefits. That’s fairly common in the US: One out of every six adult workers who get medical insurance through an employer stay in their jobs out of fear of losing coverage, according to a recent Gallup poll. While the majority of larger employers offer health benefits, annual premiums have soared in the last decade, reaching a yearly average of $7,911 for single coverage and $22,463 for family coverage. Many of these plans also have costly copays and high deductibles, requiring employees to pay even more.
Even with a good insurance policy like Stewart’s, Americans often find themselves paying insurmountable out-of-pocket medical expenses.
“We have an incredibly complex health care system,” said Amy Niles of the PAN Foundation, a nonprofit that helps underinsured patients in need. “And unfortunately, at the end of the day, a lot of the cost gets shifted onto the patients.”
That’s why, according to Niles, it’s important to understand the price tag when considering your own health needs. Getting affordable medical care isn’t impossible, but it means sifting through an array of options: from private short-term plans to the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace tiers to government- or state-based insurance, all with different rules, requirements, enrollment dates, premiums and deductibles. It also means becoming a strong self-advocate. If a household can’t afford health insurance, there are other resources that provide help and low-cost care.
‘My heart goes out to all freelancers’
Freelancers and gig workers without access to employer-based plans can jump onto their partner’s plan or apply for Medicaid, but often they have to select the plan they can afford on the health insurance marketplace, commonly referred to as the exchange.
Jeanette Smith, a freelance fiction editor who resides in Dallas, said she has paid anywhere from $150 (with a premium tax credit) to $450 a month for self-employed insurance, and the costs have only been increasing. Though monthly insurance premiums on the exchange vary by