I hate to admit it, but I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time recently researching the purchase of a new digital SLR camera. (My old one is 10 years old, and I stopped using it once my iPhone eclipsed it in terms of image quality and convenience.) I was thinking about this because, like many other people, I will need to shop for a new health plan during the open enrollment period that just began this past Sunday. Unlike my camera-shopping adventures, which I have thoroughly enjoyed (even though the amount of information and detail available is mind-boggling), I find the prospect of shopping for a health plan daunting. (And articles like this one don’t help get me psyched for the process!)
Why is there such a difference between shopping for a camera vs. a health plan? Both are incredibly complicated with a staggering number of options, but one I embrace and the other I loathe. I thought it would be interesting to tease this out, as I don’t think the answer is as simple as saying that health insurance is just too complex (although, it certainly is and according to our recent survey, I’m not alone in feeling this way). In my opinion, digital photography gives health insurance a run for its money on complexity, terminology, and number of options!
Breaking it Down: Camera Vs. Health Plan Shopping
One key differentiator comes down to motivation for the purchase. In researching and shopping for a camera, I’m looking for something that I expect will be fun to use and will bring years of enjoyment. When I’m thinking about what features and capabilities I need, I’m imagining how I will use it. I’m visualizing taking it on vacation and photographing beautiful scenery and my boys’ adventures. I’m picturing myself photographing sporting and school events. In other words, all fun stuff.
When I’m researching and shopping for a health plan, on the other hand, I’m thinking about risk. Risk – especially the kind involved in health insurance – is not a “fun” topic. When I’m evaluating features and costs of the various health plans, I focus on how often someone in my family might get sick and what that does to our costs. I’m wondering “what if” someone has to go to the emergency room (or worse) this year. Not only am I thinking about costs, but I’m reminded of how awful those experiences can be for any family. I know that I have to have health insurance (it’s required now under the Affordable Care Act), but having it will hopefully bring peace of mind.
I Can Always Return A Camera…
While the health plan purchase is decidedly more important than the camera purchase, I am embarrassed to admit that I will probably spend considerably more time on the camera purchase when all is said and done. This does not seem right, especially given the fact that if I make the wrong choice on the camera, I can always return it (or, at worst, the technology will be obsolete in a few years and I can have some fun shopping again, armed with better information about my needs and how I will use it). With health insurance, making the wrong choice could be costly or worse. I do get the chance to make a different decision in a year, but a lot can go wrong in a year.
I figured that, given the amount of time I’ve spent on this camera purchase, I should be able to apply something to my health plan shopping process to make it easier or more effective. I realized that I could apply some key elements of my camera shopping process:
- Prioritize needs – For my family, that means making sure certain doctors are in-network. We don’t use a lot of care, but the care that we do use is with doctors with whom the relationship and their understanding of our history are important and comforting.
- Consider how we will really use care – I’ll take a look at our utilization over the past year or two, as well as think about what we might be in for this year, and then try to find the plan that has the best fit for us at the lowest cost.
- Evaluate the trade-offs – I know that wanting certain doctors in our network is likely going to come with a cost. I’ll look for ways to minimize that cost – maybe, looking for a plan with different utilization parameters or looking at different insurance carriers. In the end, it’s possible I may even re-evaluate my assumptions about our needs. At some cost point, perhaps we don’t have to be in the network that has all of our doctors. After all, there are many good doctors out there, and starting over may not be so bad.
I do feel like my camera shopping has helped me “limber up” for the health plan shopping process. As result, I have given myself some structure for the process and the opportunity to think more holistically about my family’s health and financial security for the long term (and how our decisions about health insurance factor to into that overall plan). Open enrollment is in full swing, so if you’re out there shopping for a plan, take a moment to breathe and leverage some of those savvy consumer-shopping skills that are just waiting to be tapped.