When it comes to buying health insurance, women in particular face special challenges.
"Women utilize more medical services than men due in part to longer life expectancies, the need for reproductive care, and a greater likelihood of chronic disease and disability," analysts noted in a February report for The Kaiser Family Foundation.
"Furthermore, women take major responsibility for coordinating care for family members, shoulder higher annual health care expenses, face more affordability challenges, and are more likely to experience inconsistent insurance coverage compared to men."
Thanks to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, certain important preventative measures are now covered without a copayment, including annual "well-woman" checkups, HPV testing, screening for gestational diabetes, mammograms, breast-feeding support and services, screening and counseling for domestic violence, and some types of FDA-approved contraceptives. Insurance agencies are also no longer allowed to charge women higher premiums than men, something that had been a barrier to women trying to find affordable coverage.
If you don't already have health insurance through your employer, the new health care law's individual mandate requires that you purchase your own health insurance by Jan. 1, 2014. To make doing so a little easier, state-run health care marketplaces will open on Oct. 1, offering consumers a variety of choices. An estimated 18.6 million uninsured women are eligible to buy health insurance in these marketplaces , according to the Department of Health and Human Services .
Still, choosing a plan for the first time can be difficult.
"The most important thing for uninsured women to consider is simply completing an application for the health insurance marketplace, says Dr. Nancy C. Lee, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and director of the Office on Women's Health.
"The application is free to fill out and there is no commitment once it is completed," she points out. "Women who need affordable health insurance have nothing to lose by filling out an application."
Experts advise women to keep these things in mind when selecting a plan.
Financial help is available. Federal tax credits (to help pay for health insurance) will be available for households with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level – this year, that's $46,000 for individuals or $94,200 for a family of four. Those with incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($28,725 for individuals and $58,875 for a family of four) can get subsidies to help pay out-of-pocket expenses.
Of single-parent households led by women, 92 percent have incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the National Women's Law Center. "Nearly 80 percent of all single-parent families are headed by women," adds Judy Waxman, NWLC vice president of health and reproductive rights. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women who earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for Medicaid coverage, even if they have no children and are not pregnant.
Different plans offer different levels of maternity coverage. Once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented in 2014, all insurance plans will be required to offer some maternity coverage. But insurers have wide latitude to determine which maternity services are offered above the basic legal requirements. The National Partnership for Women and Families cautions that pregnancy-related counseling, prenatal care, midwifery services, enhanced coverage for high-risk pregnancies, labor and delivery services outside of a hospital setting and neonatal care may not be included in every plan. Other women's advocacy groups agree, and advise women to weigh their options carefully. "If a woman is planning or hoping to get pregnant, she should look at what specific maternity services are covered under each plan and if there are limits," says Rachel Fleischer, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "She should check out if there are limits, caps or specific requirements around services."