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Health Insurance

Your legal rights

If you work for a company with 20 or more employees and you lose your job, a federal law called COBRA (for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) requires your ex-employer to let you stay on the group policy for at least 18 months, at your own expense. If you have generous coverage paid mostly by your employer, the full premium (plus 2% for administrative costs) could be quite a shock. Still, it's wise to hang on to your old coverage until you're covered at a new job or find more affordable insurance elsewhere.

A more recent federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act (HIPAA) goes COBRA one better. It says that as long as you've been covered under a group policy within the previous 63 days, no insurer can turn you down for coverage, even if you're seriously ill. Unfortunately, HIPAA doesn't regulate premium costs so there's no guarantee that you can afford the insurance you're legally entitled to.

As the number of uninsured continues to rise, states have become increasingly active in helping individuals get insurance, though price continues to be a problem. Twenty-two states have so-called "high-risk pools," which guarantee insurance to applicants whose health histories make them undesirable to insurers. Some states have other ways of making coverage more accessible. New York, for instance, requires insurers to use a modified "community rating" when pricing coverage, so they can't charge disproportionately high premiums to applicants in poor health. For a state-by-state analysis of your rights to health insurance, check the Website run by Georgetown University's Institute for Health Care Research and Policy.

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