Fewer and fewer Americans get health insurance through employers or unions. According to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percentage of employers who offer it fell to 60% this year.

So if you do have employer-sponsored health insurance, it's important to make the most of it. You're about to enter the "open enrollment" period, where you may have the opportunity to choose between several types of plans offered by your employer. Take the time to examine your options.

Many companies are now offering health savings accounts that allow you to pay for medical expenses with pretax dollars (and save what you don't use). And even if you plan to stick with your existing plan, you'll want to check to make sure your physicians and hospitals are still part of the "preferred provider organization."

But if you are among the 40 million Americans who aren't covered and at risk of financial disaster without health insurance, there's new help in finding an appropriate and affordable policy.

Searching for Health Insurance

For many years, the online health insurance field was dominated by eHealthInsurance.com -- a Web site that has won awards for its usefulness in allowing people to search online for policies, and compare them based on premium, deductibles, co-payments and other features.

The site offers coverage for individuals, small business, short-term needs -- and even individual Health Savings Accounts, using a high deductible policy and an insurance company that creates the saving mechanism for you. While you can complete the entire process online, eHealthInsurance.com features independent counsellors to help you understand your options.

Now there's a new entrant into the field: gohealthinsurance.com. Founder Brandon Cruz says the site is based on the idea that while technology can help you search for the best policy, most people still want to talk to an expert to get personalized advice. So in addition to simply comparing policy features online, the site also gives you the option of either immediately connecting with a prescreened insurance agent, 24 hours a day, or providing contact information which will allow up to five of their chosen local brokers to contact you.

That's a mixed blessing. Most people know very well how to find an auto insurance agent or a stockbroker, but very few know how to reach a health insurance broker. As a result, many people who could afford some sort of low-cost health insurance aren't aware of the possibilities. On the other hand, you might be overwhelmed by the variety of brokers who call or email to fulfill your request for more information.

I took a "test drive" of the site, entering my personal statistics along with an email and phone number, and within two days I was contacted by at least five health insurance brokers that were approved by the site. They offered to help me find a health insurance policy that would best suit my needs.

I spoke with several of them, after revealing that I was doing research for a column, and found most to be quite knowledgeable. They don't get paid their commission until you stick with the policy for at least four months, so they have no incentive to waste your time -- or theirs.

The brokers are able to talk with you about policies available in your state. (Remember, all health insurance policies are state-regulated.) But they deal with a wide variety of insurance companies, and are skilled at figuring out what you need, and whether you are likely to qualify.

One confided in me that nearly 50% of the people who request information have pre-existing conditions that disqualify them. Others can get health insurance, but only for very high premiums. Another broker explained that he refers non-qualifiers to state-run insurance programs, which may be more flexible.

So if you don't have health insurance, or if you know someone in that position, send them to one of these websites. The search is free -- and it can't hurt to try! That's the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book, The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need? in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.

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