Health Insurance for Unemployed Workers

Information on Health Benefits for Unemployed Workers

Doctor discussing with patient
••• Portra Images / Getty Images

One of the biggest concerns for unemployed workers, besides the loss of a paycheck, is the loss of health insurance. Health insurance is very important to have, but it can be expensive. What options for health insurance coverage are available, and how can you access health insurance coverage when you have lost your job?

Know what your options are so that you can select a form of health insurance that works for your situation.

Company-Provided Health Insurance

If you're laid off, your employer should review the benefits you are entitled to receive when you leave employment. Ask your employer about your eligibility for continuing to stay on the company’s health plan through the federal law COBRA. According to COBRA, if the company you are leaving has over 20 employees, it is mandated by law to offer health insurance coverage to terminated employees for at least 18 months. COBRA applies to employees who voluntarily or involuntarily leave their jobs, or who stay at a company but lose their insurance (due to changes in their hours, for example).

The benefit of COBRA is that you can stay on your current health insurance plan, which means you can see the same doctors you have been seeing. However, the downside is that you need to pay for this coverage (plus an additional administrative fee).

Keep in mind that you have a 60-day window of time to enroll in COBRA after you leave your job, so look into this option quickly.

In some cases, employers will pay for coverage for a limited time as part of a severance package. Therefore, it is important to talk to your employer (or your company’s human resources department) before you leave, so you know what your coverage options are.

The Affordable Care Act

Under the federal law the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), unemployed workers can also find health insurance through the government’s Health Insurance Marketplace.

The Marketplace provides individuals a way to purchase health insurance.

Normally, people need to apply for health insurance in the Marketplace during a particular enrollment period. However, if you leave a job outside of the normal enrollment period, you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period. This mean that, once you leave your job, you have a 60-day enrollment window to shop and enroll in a health plan through the Marketplace.

Your health insurance options (and costs) will vary depending on your income and household size.

Check With Your State

Before deciding on an insurance plan, check with your state insurance department. Some states have people apply for insurance through the federal Marketplace, while other states have a state-based marketplace.

If coverage is available through your state, the cost of the coverage (and the ability to participate) usually depend on your income and the number of people in your family.

More Insurance Options

If you lose your job or are otherwise unemployed, there are a few other options for finding health insurance. Below are some options you can look into:

  • Medicaid provides free or low-cost health insurance to some people based on particular factors. People who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), also commonly known as welfare, automatically qualify for Medicaid. Other people also may qualify based on their income and resources; for example, low-income people, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, and others qualify. Find out if you qualify for Medicaid.
  • The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a free or low-cost health insurance plan for children that qualify. Find out whether your children qualify for CHIP.
  • If you are under 26 and unemployed, you can get on your parents' insurance plan. Qualifying children need not be full-time students or dependents.
  • Insurance companies and various school's alumni association may offer temporary insurance in your state.
  • Unions, trade associations, and members-only warehouse clubs like BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco may also offer various forms of health insurance.

Tips for Finding Health Insurance When Unemployed

There are also other health insurance options available. Steve Trattner, President and Chief Marketing Officer of Cinergy Health, shares his health insurance tips for unemployed workers:

  • Talk to your employer. Before leaving your job, make sure you talk to your employer in detail about your benefits (including insurance) to get a sense of when these will end. This information will help you make a decision about what kind of insurance you will need.
  • Start shopping for individual insurance early. Insurance is complicated, and you don't want to make a rash or uneducated decision. Start early so that you can thoughtfully weigh your options. You also don’t want to start shopping late, because you might end up uninsured for a brief time period. This can be both dangerous and costly.
  • Avoid paying a penalty. Another reason to shop for insurance early is that you have to make a payment to the federal government (also known as a “penalty,” or “individual mandate”) if you don’t have what is considered qualifying health coverage. For any month you do not have insurance, you will have to pay. There are exemptions depending on your circumstances (including your income), but this is just another reason to avoid going without health insurance for any period of time.
  • Have your information ready. Whether you are applying for COBRA or going on the federal or state Marketplace, you will need to have some information ready. Be sure you know your income and the number of dependents in your household. You may also need your Social Security Number, tax information, and information about your current or previous health insurance plan.
  • Evaluate health plan options based on your individual (or family) healthcare needs. For example, health insurance plans might permit you to select a high deductible, say $5,000, in order to get a very low affordable premium. This type of plan will provide coverage if you face a catastrophic medical event, but isn't going to cover your routine and predictable healthcare needs. There are also short-term plans available that expire at the end of a 6 or 12 month term and cost much less than major medical plans. Think about what plan will work best for you.
  • Choosing a policy that doesn't include several treatment facilities is also an option to lower your premium rates. There are low-cost, limited medical plans that provide coverage for an individual's more immediate needs, like routine doctor visits and short-term hospital stays, without a deductible.

Review Options

It's important to know that you have limited time to decide on health care options, so carefully review options for maintaining coverage as soon as possible after your employment terminates. Here's information on evaluating COBRA vs. Marketplace (Obamacare) insurance.