Savvy Consumer: Save on Health Insurance

Wal-Mart made a splash this week when it announced that it would make nearly 300 generic drugs available to customers for $4 for a 30-day supply.

Wal-Mart is launching the program in Florida and plans to roll it out nationwide. Because Wal-Mart is the world's biggest retailer, the move could have profound effects on the cost of medications and consumers' views of generic drugs.

Wal-Mart's offer is open to people with health insurance and without. That got me thinking about the 45 million Americans who don't have health care coverage. What are some of the ways those folks can save?

Have you ever wondered how health insurance came to be an employee benefit? What's the connection? It's not like that in most other countries.

Turns out, it's an accident of history. During World War II, workers were scarce and companies had become cash-poor because of the Great Depression.

Since companies couldn't afford to pay high wages, they began to offer fringe benefits to attract workers. Group health insurance was one of those benefits. Since this benefit came about as such a fluke, it could just as easily disappear. If you lose your company health benefits, you'll want to be ready. If you never had company health insurance benefits in the first place, there are strategies to keep costs down.

If you lose your benefits because you've lost your job, it's simple. Thanks to the Congressional Budget Reconciliation Act, or Cobra, you can buy in to your previous employer's group health insurance plan for up to 18 months. You'll have to pay the full premium.

You are eligible for the Cobra plan if you leave a company and become unemployed or self-employed; if you are under 23 years old and your parent leaves a company; if you are the divorced spouse of an employee who worked at the company for at least three years; or if you are the survivor of an employee who worked at the company for at least three years.

The Cobra plan benefits you in several scenarios: if you leave a company and become unemployed or self-employed; if you are under 23 years old and your parent leaves a company; if you are the divorced spouse of an employee who worked at the company for at least three years; or if you are the survivor of an employee who worked at the company for at least three years.

If you do need to buy your own health insurance, there are ways to save. For example, after your Cobra eligibility expires, try asking that same insurance company to convert you from group to individual coverage. It'll be more expensive than what you're used to paying but possibly less than if you were to buy coverage from a company that doesn't know you. Compare that rate to what you can get in the open marketplace for individual insurance. Shop around. The health insurance industry says there are now lots of competitive individual plans out there.

Trade associations, professional organizations and alumni clubs sometimes offer group health plans. I recently heard that an association of people who are self-employed is currently offering decent rates on health care coverage. Some labor unions offer health care coverage if you work freelance in a union job just a few weeks a year. If you are over 50, you can join AARP and become eligible for its extensive health care plan. Here's an odd one: Some credit card companies offer health care coverage deals.

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