There are more than 46 million people currently living in the United States without health insurance, and the number of people covered by employment-based insurance continues to decrease, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In difficult economic times, more individuals are looking for individual health insurance coverage, especially those who are unemployed but ineligible for COBRA benefits or COBRA subsidies because of the many restrictions and deadlines. Individuals who are eligible for COBRA may only be covered for 18 months, so as their benefits expire, they will be looking for individual plans, as well.

Providing your clients and prospects with advice and resources for choosing an individual plan that best fits their needs can help them obtain new coverage or continue to benefit from the coverage they are accustomed to, while also maximizing their health care dollars. Consider sharing these four tips and resources with your clients, then, as they go about choosing their individual health care plan.

#1: Help clients educate themselves about health benefits plans
Health insurance is complicated, and many people do not understand how the system works, the options available to them, or the acronyms and vocabulary of the industry. A recent survey from CIGNA HealthCare showed that, on average, individuals spend 30 minutes reviewing their health options, but they spend eight hours on the purchase of a new car. Individuals should be educated on the details of available policies. The Internet provides a variety of resources that are available for your clients, with an array of informative Web sites incorporating the latest distance learning techniques. Through these free online resources, your clients can become educated about health care.

Tools include health trivia quizzes, podcasts, and interactive educational courses on topics such as how to reduce out-of-pocket costs, new health care options, and how to make sense of health care plans.

#2: Show clients how to evaluate their insurance needs
Some of your clients may be looking at retirement, and helping them understand the changes in their insurance needs is critical. Many people are simply looking to make their assets last through their later years, rather than accumulating and protecting additional assets as they did in earlier years. So, they need to re-evaluate how they approach health insurance requirements. Teaching your clients about their options, such as a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account (HSA) may help meet their needs. Using an HSA allows your clients to pay for their everyday health care costs up to a set amount, at which time the health insurance plan begins to pay for those expenses. They are protected in the event of a catastrophic health issue so their assets are protected. These plans are generally much less expensive than traditional health plans, which have minimal copayments and co-insurance.

#3: Teach clients how to take advantage of their plans
Teach your clients how taking advantage of their individual health care plan can save time and money. Many plans cover regular checkups and screenings, which can help prevent potential problems and catch conditions early, before the cost of treatment skyrockets. Help your clients find out if their plan includes a 24-hour health information line staffed by nurses. These types of hotlines can serve as the first line of defense, so policyholders can find out if they really need to go to the doctor or whether an over-the-counter medication might help relieve their symptoms.

Teach your clients about all of the benefits included in their individual plans, such as discounts on wellness programs ranging from smoking cessation to weight management programs. These types of programs can serve as preventive measures that can reduce the risk of illness and lessen the chance of developing more serious conditions, such as heart disease or cancer.

#4: Encourage clients to compare their options
When individuals are looking for health coverage, they want to know how that plan has worked for others in the past. Help your clients feel confident about the right individual plan for them by encouraging them to check out the plan’s report card on the National Committee for Quality Assurance’s Web site, available at reportcard.ncqa.org/plan/external/plansearch.aspx.

Older Americans with limited income and resources may not know what options are available to them, but you can help these clients understand their individual plan choices. Another program to reference is the BenefitsCheckUp, which is sponsored by the National Council on Aging and is the nation’s most comprehensive Web-based service that helps individuals find benefits programs. More information is available at www.benefitscheckup.org.

Kurt Weimer is president of CIGNA’s individual, small group and select business. He can be reached at kurt.weimer@cigna.com.