Wellness·4 min read

Unemployed: How to Get Health Insurance

Image of searching for health insurance
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
June 10, 2020

The Story

Losing your job could mean losing your health insurance too. At least in the US.

What’s the deal?

Most Western countries have universal health care coverage (which generally means all residents have access to health insurance, usually paid for through tax revenue). The US doesn’t. Instead, about half of Americans get health insurance through work. And when you lose your job, you might lose the insurance that comes with it. 

Cool cool.

Yep. And with record high unemployment due to COVID-19, that’s become a big problem. If you’re dealing with this, you have some options for keeping yourself covered. Like...

The Family Plan

Not just for your cell phone. If you’ve lost your insurance, you might be able to hop on your spouse’s or parent’s plan (the parent option applies if you’re under 26). Usually, you’d have to join their employer-based plan during a specific enrollment period. But job loss = a qualifying event aka a special exception to break the normal rules.

Sign me up.

Ok, but do it fast. You usually only have 30 days after you lose your coverage to join a family plan. To find out how, have your family member ask their employer or insurance company.


Not a reptile. It’s a 1985 federal law that lets employees stay on their job’s health care plans for up to 18 months after they lose their jobs. It applies to private companies with at least 20 employees, plus state and local governments. You should get a notice about COBRA when you leave your job. Once you get that, you have 60 days to decide if you want to opt in. If you haven’t been notified, call your old HR department.

Sounds great.

It could be – but COBRA can be expensive. Typically, when you're on payroll your employer helps cover the cost of insurance. Under COBRA, you're on the hook for the whole bill. And that can add up. One study found that in 2019, the average annual cost of an employer-based plan was about $7,000 for one person and about $20,000 for family coverage. But if you don’t want anything to change about your health care coverage, COBRA is your no. 1 option.


Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that gives millions of Americans health care coverage, including those with lower incomes, disabilities, pregnant women, and older Americans. It’s funded through taxpayers and taxes on health care providers. The program has to cover certain services like surgeries, lab tests, and x-ray services, among other things. Depending on where you live, it might cover things like prescriptions and physical therapy.

How do I find out if I’m eligible?

It’s largely based on income. For example, if you’re a single person and make $17,608/year or less, you may qualify. (Though some states use a different income limit.) To find out if you can get on board, go to this site.

If I qualify, how do I apply?

There are two ways: create an account on the federal gov’s health care website, or apply directly through your state’s Medicaid agency. You can do both here. Unlike other health insurance programs, Medicaid doesn’t have an open enrollment period. So you can apply whenever you want.

How much is this gonna cost me?

Medicaid’s either free or low cost. If you have to pay up, the cost will depend on where you live. The reason? States can decide if they want to charge premiums (aka the amount you pay every month for health insurance) and set up out-of-pocket costs (aka costs that aren’t covered through insurance, like a copay). If your income is on the higher end, you could be charged more for those out-of-pocket costs.

If your income is too high to qualify for Medicaid and COBRA isn’t an option, you can also check out…

The Marketplace

The ones set up by the Affordable Care Act. The marketplaces are essentially one-stop shops to find and enroll in health insurance coverage. While the federal gov has a marketplace, about a dozen states and DC have their own – including California, Massachusetts, and New York. You can click ‘add insurance to cart’ online and there’s a marketplace call center where you can ask any Qs. All marketplace insurance plans cover essentials like emergency services, and pregnancy and newborn care. Some plans also include dental coverage.

And how do I get my hands on this?

The open enrollment period for the marketplace is typically in November and December – but if you left your job and lost your health insurance (whether you quit or were let go), you’ll qualify for a special enrollment period. Meaning you have 60 days to apply after losing your insurance. Your new coverage kicks in on the first day of the month after you lose your insurance.

Let’s talk money.

Since the Marketplace is more of an à la carte situation, what you pay depends on the type of coverage you get. One study showed that the average marketplace premium cost $478/month in 2019. Worth noting that depending on your household’s expected income, you might qualify for tax credits and discounts on out-of-pocket costs – which you’ll find out when you apply.


Losing your job and your health insurance in a one-two punch can be...stressful. But studies show that people without health insurance typically have a lot of medical debt and a harder time getting access to care. Translation: don’t put off looking into this after you stop working. Your body will thank you.

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