Herb Daroff recently received some very welcome news from his son, who graduated from college three years ago.

“Dad, I finally got health insurance!” he told his father, a certified financial planner at Baystate Financial Planning in Boston.

Daroff’s son has been working as a freelance film editor since he graduated from college in 2005. He had found securing health insurance elusive, to say the least.

That’s hardly surprising, since many employers, including those hiring workers full-time, have been increasingly cutting back on health insurance expenditures. Indeed, the median individual deductible for health insurance coverage required by small and medium sized employers (those with less than 500 employees) offering the most popular kind of health plan doubled last year, rising to $1,000 in 2008 from $500 in 2007, according to Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans.

Back in 2000, only about 50% of employers imposed a preferred provider organization (PPO) deductible, versus 80% today, says Mercer, and when they did the median was just $250.

Recent grads are especially feeling the pinch.

“More and more you’ll find kids who…need to get their health insurance on their own,” says Daroff. Employers are not paying anywhere near as much of the premium as they used to, and there are fewer perks like dental insurance, he says.

Regular Plans, Large Deductibles
One of the Mercer findings its consultants found startling was that the high deductibles were being imposed on traditional PPOs, the sort where you can visit any doctor or facility you wish so long as it is part of a preferred network of providers. PPOs are the most popular type of health plan, says Mercer.

Mercer also found an increase in the number of so-called consumer-directed health plans (CDHPs) being offered by employers. Often, an employer will couple a high-deductible plan with a tax-advantaged account from which the consumer can pay qualified medical expenses of the account holder and his or her spouse, or dependents. You put money into your own individual health savings account (HSA) tax free, and funds are not taxed when withdrawn for qualified medical expenses. In 2008, CDHP were offered by 20% of employers with 500 or more employees, up from 14% in 2007.

How Recent Grads Can Get Coverage
What’s encouraging about these trends is that freelancers and part-time workers without employer-sponsored health plans can use these strategies on their own to minimize costs and purchase at least a minimum level of health protection for a fraction of the cost of first-dollar insurance.

Most any bank can help you set up an HSA from which you can fund health expenditures tax free, often by using a debit card.

“With higher-deductible plans, at least new graduates know the catastrophic event is covered,” says Daroff, whose firm has 300 employees and $6 billion of assets under management. (Daroff says he recently watched one of his employees waive the right to purchase insurance through the company only to then have her wages garnished because of an extended hospital stay.)

Graduates who are working freelance and part-time will also find insurance much less expensive via group plans catering particularly to freelancers, such as with the Freelancers Union, and group insurance is also available to contractors working in similar industries or sharing similar characteristics. Among organizations of this kind providing coverage are the National Association of Female Executives, as well as the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust, which administers health insurance plans for professionals in the arts and entertainment industry. Writers and editors who are part of the Editorial Freelancers Association have a wide array of plan choices.

In Daroff’s case, a financial planner helped his son secure the insurance he was after.

In case of a major unforeseen health problem that could cost you tens of thousands of dollars, it’s not so bad if you have to fund the first $1,000 to $3,000 yourself. The important thing is not to go bare. New and recent graduates have to think carefully about whether they are going to allocate their budgets “to beer and mocha lattes or to health insurance protection,” says Daroff. “Too many times it’s the former, and then something happens.”

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