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Insurance for $30 a Month

Buying your own health insurance has never been cheaper. No, really. Amid promises from presidential candidates to make health care more affordable, WellPoint, the nation's largest insurer, has quietly rolled out plans that start at a mere $55 per month. Aetna's individual coverage begins at $40, and Humana's Monogram line, perhaps the best bargain, can cost as little as $30 a month.

All offer basic medical coverage, including, in some cases, dental, vision and prescription-drug benefits. A few even throw in fancier perks like teeth-whitening or gym-membership discounts. So what's the catch? Not surprisingly, there's some fine print.

For starters, your health history could ratchet up your monthly premium--or keep you from getting covered in the first place. And a lower monthly premium tends to come with a higher annual deductible. Humana's Monogram plan, for instance, pairs its $30 premium with a staggering $7,500 deductible. And the preventive-care coverage in these plans may not extend much beyond an annual physical. So consumers who don't look past price per month--a more traditional individual plan might charge a $400 premium and a deductible closer to $500--may find themselves shelling out thousands more dollars down the line. "So many of these policies can be really shoddy," says Barbara Anthony, executive director of Health Law Advocates, a nonprofit law firm based in Boston. "Know up front what you're paying for."

Indeed, some 25 million Americans were underinsured last year, meaning they spent at least 10% of their income on out-of-pocket medical expenses, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund. Still, for most folks, having even limited coverage is better than no health insurance at all. "More than 70% of the people signing up for our [individual] policies were previously uninsured," says Mary Floyd, vice president for individual and senior sales at WellPoint.

In an attempt to make shopping for insurance a more consumer-friendly experience, Aetna asks how big a BodyGuard plan you need. WellPoint's Tonik line lets you decide whether you are a Thrill-Seeker, a Part-Time Daredevil or a Calculated Risk-Taker (choices that come down to less fun details like the size of your co-payment or deductible). Such edgy marketing aims to attract Americans ages 19 to 29--nearly a third of these so-called young immortals forgo insurance because they think they either don't need it or can't afford it. Carriers are also starting to target another demographic: early retirees who are too young to be covered by Medicare.

Whether these bare-bones policies are a good deal depends on who's buying them. Paying $20 for generic drugs, plus the $40 premium on Aetna's cheapest option, makes sense if your biggest monthly expense is $75 for the Pill. But maternity care is rarely covered by these plans. So if you're already a member and find yourself pregnant, some insurers may let you upgrade. If not, good luck switching carriers with a pre-existing condition--which, in the case of a normal pregnancy and delivery, can cost $8,000 to $12,000. If instead you simply break your leg, all expenses are covered beyond your deductible. It's the same if you get cancer. And though a $7,500 deductible is really steep, it's better than having no safety net at all.