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Health Insurance Glossary

Definitions for common health insurance terms

short-term health insurance

DEFINITION: Designed for healthy individuals and families, short-term policies provide an affordable safety net while switching from one life event to another without a health plan. Lose your job, recent college graduate, divorced, or retired and not quite eligible for Medicare? Then consider short-term insurance (but remember that most of those scenarios are qualifying events, which means you’d be eligible to purchase an ACA-compliant plan instead – so check those options too.)

Short-term plans are not regulated by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), so they are still available year-round. For people who missed open enrollment and do not have a qualifying event that allows them to purchase an ACA-compliant plan, a short-term policy can be a good solution to bridge a short gap until general open enrollment begins again, or until an expected qualifying event.

Short-term plans are available in nearly every state, but as of April 1, 2017, new short-term plans are limited to durations of less than three months (90 days), as the federal government is trying to ensure that people are not using short-term health insurance as a relatively long-term substitute for ACA-compliant coverage.

It’s important to know that short-term plans are not considered minimum essential coverage under the ACA, so people with short-term insurance are still subject to the ACA’s individual mandate penalty unless they’re otherwise exempt from it. The individual mandate allows a gap in coverage of less than three months, so you could have a short-term policy for two months in between other minimum essential coverage and would not be subject to a penalty. But relying on short-term coverage for three months or longer would result in a penalty being assessed.

Emergency events are nearly always covered, as is hospital care, but in general, coverage is limited, so study your policy carefully. Short-term plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions, and they typically do not cover maternity, mental health or preventive care. (They are not required to cover the ACA’s essential health benefits).  Although their sale is not limited to open enrollment windows, short-term plans do use very basic medical underwriting to determine an applicant’s eligibility for coverage. Short-term plans also have blanket exclusions on pre-existing conditions, which means they won’t cover any medical conditions that you had before the plan took effect.

Although premium subsidies are not available for short-term policies, the plans are considerably less expensive than ACA-compliant major medical plans. And you can get coverage as early as the next day once you answer just a few simple questions about your health.

Bottom line: Temporary health insurance is a low-cost option to protect yourself temporarily from unforeseen and emergency medical expenses. But it’s not a substitute for ACA-compliant coverage, and it doesn’t include the myriad consumer protections provided under the law.