The recent snafus with the Obamacare website Healthcare.gov has served as an appropriate encapsulation of how the public views the process of attaining health insurance: complicated, messy and, for some, not worth the effort.
Technical glitches beginning Oct. 1 plagued the rollout of Obamacare's federal and state health marketplace sites, fueling opponents of the health care law and disappointing its supporters. Making matters worse, thousands of currently insured consumers are receiving cancellation notifications because their current plan doesn't hold up to Obamacare standards.
There are currently 55 million uninsured Americans, and the government estimates that 7 million people will sign up for insurance next year (barring any continued technical difficulties). The federal government has set up a comprehensive website that helps consumers explore their health insurance options at Healthcare.gov, and each state has its own health insurance exchange. These function as marketplaces where individuals and families can compare and choose health coverage to fit their needs and budgets.
If you feel that attaining or understanding a health insurance plan is beyond your ability, there are alternative, lesser-known resources available to help you find the best option.
1. Credit unions
Credit unions are member-owned financial institutions that are exempt from income taxation under federal and most state laws due to their status as nonprofit organizations. Credit unions have specific membership requirements based on criteria such as bonds of association and community charters. They tend to invest earnings in member services, including improved interest rates on loans and deposit accounts. Because credit unions are member driven and actively support their local communities, some also provide access to health insurance through a couple different avenues.
--Brokers - One way credit unions offer their members access to insurance plans is through in-house or affiliated brokers who do the research for you and provide you with a selection of plans to choose from. This process can also be automated, as in instances when a credit union has a relationship with an online broker. Accessing health insurance plans through a credit union broker can make the process easier and cost-effective, since insurance advisory services are sometimes provided free as a membership benefit.
--Insurance companies - Other credit unions have relationships with insurance companies and have in-house agents who offer advice on the best plans available. These relationships vary from one credit union to another; some have single-company partnerships, while others partner with multiple companies.
2. Health cooperatives
Health cooperatives are not new, but they have gained national attention and increased in number due to the Consumer Owned and Operated Plan - part of the Affordable Care Act - which provided initial government funding of regional health cooperatives that would offer insurance services through the Healthcare.gov marketplace. Health cooperatives are similar to credit unions in that they are member-owned collectives that absorb the costs of service in order to provide more affordable individual service. Cooperatives can also be tax-exempt, which keeps costs lower. Membership is often determined by area of residence.
Cooperatives tend to form partnerships or have contracts with health care providers, and occasionally, insurance companies. Some employ their own care providers. A few cooperatives have also formed relationships with credit unions, providing broker service for credit union members. Most cooperatives offer you the ability sign up for plans online or through a broker.
3. Associations for self-employed individuals and small businesses
There are associations for self-employed individuals, their families and small businesses that provide access to health insurance plans through brokers or affiliated insurance companies. Some of these associations also offer supplemental health insurance packages as part of membership deals. These packages can cover major medical conditions like cancer or stroke.
The bottom line: Health insurance can be confusing. Use the resources that are available to you to make the process easier, gain a better understanding of the difference between plans and find the plan that works best for you.
Divya Raghavan is a senior analyst at NerdWallet, a personal finance and consumer advocacy website that helps consumers find the best credit unions.