How to Get Health Insurance Without a Job
You can get health insurance without a job through COBRA, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act Marketplace, and various other outlets.
Updated January 31, 2023
Reading time: 8 minutes
Losing your job can mean more than the loss of household income if your health plan is tied to an employer. Fortunately, you have ways to access health benefits without employer-sponsored health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about getting health insurance coverage without a job.
You have various healthcare options available to you as you consider your next move, including COBRA, the Affordable Care Act Marketplace, short-term health insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare.
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is a law that allows employees who have been laid off or had their hours reduced to continue accessing their previous coverage options for a period of time.
“COBRA is a great mechanism for someone in the first 18 months of leaving a job that provided group coverage,” says Ron Wadley, owner of Insurance for Texans, a company that specializes in helping people access health insurance plans. “For those with ongoing treatment needs, it is typically a very good recommendation to keep the continuity of care.”
COBRA offers coverage for up to 36 months after you leave a job, depending on your qualifying event. You’ll still have access to the same benefits as the group health plan provided by your employer with COBRA coverage. The main downside to COBRA is that you’ll likely be responsible for the full premium, as your employer is no longer required to cover the cost.
Medicaid is an option for those with low enough income to qualify. If you can’t afford private insurance, this can be a way to get the healthcare you need.
Check with the human services department in your state to find out whether you’re eligible for essential health benefits through Medicaid programs. Medicaid eligibility has two parts: what the federal government offers and what the state is willing to provide.
Medicare is another option, though it’s designed for people 65 or older. You’re eligible to enroll three months before you turn 65, so if you’ve been laid off and you’re close to your 65th birthday, it might be a good idea to sign up for Medicare.
There are three main parts to Medicare: parts A, B, and D.
Part A covers hospital visits.
Part B is designed for regular medical expenses like doctor’s appointments and medical equipment.
Part D provides coverage for prescription drugs.
Part A and Part B are considered “Original Medicare.” There’s also a Medicare Part C, which combines Parts A and B into one plan known as Medicare Advantage. If you’re eligible for Medicare Advantage, some providers or health insurance brokers can help you find a plan that has the coverage you need with lower overall costs.
Your county or state human services department can point you in the right direction, or you can go to one of the U.S. centers specializing in Medicare.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) created a federal marketplace for health insurance plans. In addition to offering a variety of comprehensive health insurance plans and basic plans, the federal government also provides financial help for those who need it. Based on where your income stands in relation to the federal poverty level, government subsidies may be available to you to cover the costs associated with your health plan.
You can access marketplace coverage through the federal government by visiting Healthcare.gov or through your state-run health insurance exchange.
“Generally, you can only sign up for health insurance on the exchange during open enrollment, which is annually from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15,” explains Dr. Ben Aiken, vice president of health at Decent, a health insurance administrator. “However, losing your employer-sponsored insurance because you were laid off counts as a ‘qualifying event,’ meaning you are granted a special enrollment period for 60 days after your old policy ends.”
You can still get an ACA plan up to Jan. 15 as part of open enrollment, but your coverage won’t start until February. If you enroll in your plan by Dec. 15, you can have new coverage for the new year.
This access can also be useful for people who are self-employed. If you decide to start a small business after leaving your job, ACA plans may offer a way to create health benefits for you and your employees. Self-employment can be challenging — using health insurance exchanges may be a good way to get health insurance benefits without employer-sponsored insurance.
Young adults can also access lower-cost options that only cover catastrophic care through the ACA Marketplace. Many types of Marketplace insurance plans are available, and nearly anyone can find a new plan to meet their needs and cover their medical bills.
Finally, the American Rescue Plan provides extra help and represents an expansion of benefits provided through the ACA. In some cases, you might owe $0 to the insurance company for premiums, depending on your annual income and the subsidies you qualify for.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was passed into law decades ago and is designed to ensure that children receive access to healthcare. People with low incomes can access this coverage for their children through their state health and welfare departments.
As with many government programs, your eligibility depends on your household size and income level. If you can’t get coverage for your spouse or children through other means, CHIP may help you ensure dependent children in your home get access to healthcare.
Some states offer group insurance to people who are unemployed, such as MinnesotaCare in Minnesota.
In general, these programs work by allowing you to choose a plan from what’s available in your county. This medical insurance usually relies on provider networks in a certain area. It can be a way to manage health insurance costs and out-of-pocket expenses when you have a low income.
Check with your state for available plans that offer low-cost health coverage for those with lower incomes.
Learn More: Do You Need Health Insurance Coverage?
A short-term health insurance plan can help you with a gap in coverage while you look for a new job or wait to see if you qualify for a government plan.
“These plans are intended to bridge coverage gaps for specified periods, ranging from one month to three years,” Wadley says. “The downside is that these plans are not a permanent, long-term solution because of the time constraints. They also can be problematic if you have a major diagnosis or event while covered, as some companies will choose not to renew a policy even though you might have time left.”
Additionally, these plans don’t have a general enrollment period, like federal health insurance Marketplace plans or Medicare. If you miss a general or special enrollment period, you can get a short-term plan to help you cover medical costs until you find a more permanent plan.
“Catastrophic plans are designed for those who rarely go to the doctor but want to ensure they’re covered in an unexpected emergency,” Wadley says.
These plans are typically available to young adults and offer you the ability to go to the emergency room, get surgery, or have a hospital stay without spending too much out of pocket. They’re usually implemented through private health insurance, and Wadley suggests that they’re only suitable for a short time before another policy becomes a better idea.
If you meet the location-specific income requirements, you may be eligible to get primary care and other medical services from community health centers. These centers typically offer services on a sliding cost scale based on your income and other factors.
Many of these centers accept Medicaid, even if other local providers won’t. If you have medical problems, no job, and no access to insurance, a community health center might be your most cost-effective option.
In general, you can apply for health insurance during open enrollment, which falls between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15 of each year. It applies to government health insurance programs and many employer-sponsored insurance plans.
However, you may be eligible for a special enrollment period if you lose your job, if there’s a death in the family, if your insurance company drops your coverage, and in some other circumstances. In these cases, you often have up to 60 days from the event to enroll in coverage.
Pay close attention to dates and deadlines for individual and group health coverage when applying for coverage through a state or federal government website.
You can apply for coverage by visiting Healthcare.gov during open enrollment. There, you’ll be able to determine what you qualify for and how much you’ll have for monthly premiums.
In recent years, the government has updated monthly payment options, adjusted qualifications for plans, and worked to reduce the cost of health insurance.
When you apply for coverage, you’ll be asked to provide information about:
Your household size
Your annual income
Your identity, including your ID, address, birthdate, and Social Security number
If you need help applying for coverage, check with a local community center, insurance specialist, or your state’s health and welfare department.
The earlier you start researching your health insurance options and gathering the necessary information, the more likely you’ll be to get the type of insurance coverage you need.
Follow these steps to calculate your income for coverage:
Step 1: Determine your adjusted gross income (AGI) from your last tax return. Healthcare.gov also has other ways for you to estimate your income.
Step 2: You might have tax-exempt interest, foreign income, or Social Security benefits. These need to be added to your AGI when determining your income for coverage. If you’re unsure about Social Security income, you can check your account at the Social Security Administration to get an idea.
Step 3: Include other income you think you may make in the coming year. This might include getting a new job, a raise, or self-employment income.
|Type of Income||Included in Calculation?|
|Tax-exempt Social Security income||Yes|
|Tax-exempt foreign income||Yes|
|Supplemental Security Income (SSI)||No|
Here are some ways to help you save money on your health insurance coverage:
Premium tax credits: If you have an eligible ACA Marketplace plan and meet the income eligibility requirements, you might receive tax credits designed to help you cover premiums.
Cost-sharing reductions: Some programs offer reductions when you share costs with others. Carefully consider these programs, though, since they aren’t always the most reliable insurance.
Health savings account (HSA): You might be able to contribute to an HSA if you have a high-deductible health plan. This allows you to get tax benefits for contributions and use the money for qualified medical expenses.
Learn More: What Is an FSA?
You may be able to be added to a family member’s existing plan depending on your age and relationship. You’ll typically need to be a dependent to join a family member’s plan. Additionally, you might need to meet age or disability requirements. Spouses can usually be added to these plans, but there may be additional costs.
Getting health coverage without a job can be a challenge, and many people have questions. Here are answers to a few common questions from unemployed people looking for health insurance.
Yes, if you get a new job, you can cancel your Marketplace coverage.
Yes, even if you quit your job, you qualify for COBRA. Federal law requires those with at least 20 employees to provide COBRA access, even for those who quit.
Yes, you need to file a tax return if you want to receive premium tax credits. Your tax return is part of the paper trail used to qualify you for government subsidies.
Government programs like Medicaid and CHIP can help you get coverage for your dependents when you’re unemployed. Additionally, many community health centers offer low-cost care based on a sliding scale.
You can qualify for ACA plans at any income level. However, if you want access to the premium subsidy, your income must be between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level. If you have a low income, you might also qualify for Medicaid or other programs.
Miranda Marquit, MBA, is a freelance financial writer covering various markets and topics since 2006. She has contributed to numerous media outlets, including Forbes, TIME, The Hill, NPR, HuffPost, Yahoo! Money, and more. Her work has been syndicated by MSN Money, Marketwatch, Credit.com, and other publications. She has written about insurance topics for Clearsurance, HealthCare.com, and various other websites. She is also an avid podcaster and co-hosts the Money Talks News podcast. Miranda has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Syracuse University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.