Are you making a $14,000 mistake?

Tuesday - 11/29/2011, 2:00am EST

Being single has its advantages, especially when you are shopping for health insurance. Or deciding which TV show to watch. Or who walks the dog.

When it comes to family coverage, Uncle Sam doesn't care whether you are a couple or a husband and wife with a couple, or a dozen, kids. If there is more than one of you being covered, you are a family.

Premiums are important, but they don't tell the whole story. Especially if you have a major illness or injury next year. Individuals who don't consider that could wind up paying as much as $17,000 out of pocket before their insurance takes over.

Blue Cross Blue Shield's very popular basic plan next year will charge federal workers and retirees $1,460 for self-only coverage and $3,430 for a family plan. Postal workers, thanks to their union contract will pay $970 for single and $2,260 for family coverage.

But premiums don't tell the whole story. According to Checkbook's Guide to Federal Health Plans, the average federal and postal worker (and retiree) will pay more because of uncovered out-of-pocket costs. That's why it ranks plans by both the basic premium (which you must pay) and out-of-pocket costs, ranging from the minimal to the catastrophic that you might have to pay next year. Using the "average" cost to you, it ranks the Kaiser standard and high option as best buys among the HMOs: APWU CDHP, Atena CDHP and GEHA HDHP as top buys for consumer-driven health plans and Blue Cross basic, Foreign Service, Compass Rose , GEHA standard, APWU high option and SAMBA standard options as best buys among the national fee-for-service plans.

The guide is available ($9.95) at many drug and grocery stores and at bookstores. But before you buy it, check to see if you agency has already paid for the online version for you. They range from entire agencies, like GSA, DIA, Energy, Health and Human Services and the Labor Department to specific components, like the Naval Research Lab or workers at Patrick AFB. To see if you agency is participating, click here.

Wednesday at 10 a.m. Walton Francis, editor of Checkbook's Guide, will be the guest on our Your Turn radio show. He'll explain why you shouldn't judge a plan by its premiums alone, how to find out if your doctor or specialist is participating in the health plan and why the most important thing in insurance — the reason you buy it — is for catastrophic coverage. The plan to have if the worst happens to you, or a family member, in 2012. For example:

If you are hit with the worst kind of medical bills (illness or accident) next year, the most a single person would pay in total next year would be $2,930 if covered by the CareFirst BlueChoice standard plan, compared to $17,330 in the Mail Handlers Value plan. So hope for the best, but consider the worst.

Open Season ends Dec. 12, so you still have time to shop. But the clock is ticking. If inertia takes over you will be in your same-old, same-old plan next year. That may be okay, but it's not something that should automatically happen.

We'll continue our series of health plan columns and interactive radio shows with Walt Francis. If you have questions for him, you can email them to me, or call in (showtime is 10 a.m. EST Wednesday) at 202-465-3081. Listen live if you can. If not, all of our Your Turn shows are archived, so you (or a friend) can listen anytime.

Whatever you do, do something!


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Green bean casserole was created in 1955 by the "mother of comfort food," Dorcas Reilly. Reilly led a team of home economics experts in creating the dish, which was designed to take advantage of the fact that the main ingredients — green beans and cream of mushroom soup — were generally always on hand in 1950s American households, according to the Four Pounds Flour blog.


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