What to Know About Gold Plan Health Insurance

Gold colored caduceus surrounded by pills.
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A Gold plan is a type of health insurance that pays, on average, 80 percent of covered health care expenses. Plan members pay the other 20 percent of health care expenses with their copayments, coinsurance, and deductible payments.

To make it easy to compare the value you’re getting for the money you spend on health insurance premiums, the Affordable Care Act standardized health plan value levels for individual and small group plans (but not for large group plans). These levels, or tiers, are platinum, gold, silver, and bronze.

All of the health plans of a given level offer roughly the same overall value. For gold-tier plans, the value is 80 percent. Platinum plans offer a 90 percent value, silver a 70 percent value, and bronze a 60 percent value. In each case, there's an acceptable range of -4/+2 for silver, gold, and platinum plans, and -4/+5 for bronze plans (note that California sets their range at -2/+2)

What Does Health Insurance Value Mean?

The actuarial value tells you what percentage of covered health care expenses a plan is expected to pay for its membership as a whole. This doesn’t mean that you, personally, will have exactly 80 percent of your health care costs paid by your gold plan (or within the allowable gold plan range of 76-82 percent). You might have more or less than 80 percent of your expenses paid depending on how you use your gold health plan. The value is an average spread across all of a plan’s members.

Things your health insurance doesn’t cover at all aren’t taken into account when determining a health plan’s value. For example, if your gold-tier health plan doesn’t pay for over-the-counter medicines like cosmetic surgery, cold tablets or first-aid cream, the cost of those things isn’t included when calculating your plan’s value.

Things your health plan covers without any cost sharing are included. So, the free birth control and preventive care your health plan provides are included when your plan’s value is determined.

What Will You Have to Pay?

You’ll pay monthly premiums for the health plan. Gold plan premiums tend to be more expensive than lower value plans because gold plans pay more toward your health care bills than silver or bronze plans do. Gold plan premiums will usually be cheaper than platinum plan premiums because gold plans pay a lower percentage of health care expenses than platinum plans pay.

[Note that for 2018 coverage, the normal pricing scale—bronze plans generally being least expensive, followed by silver, then gold, then platinum—doesn't necessarily hold true. Because the cost of cost-sharing reductions has been added to silver plan premiums in most states, it's possible to find gold plans that are less expensive than silver plans.]

You’ll also have to pay cost sharing like deductibles, coinsurance, and copays when you use your health insurance. How each plan makes members pay their 20 percent share of overall health care expenses will vary. For example, one gold plan might have a high $2500 deductible paired with a low 10 percent coinsurance. A competing gold plan might have a lower deductible paired with a higher coinsurance or more copays.

Why Choose a Gold Plan?

In choosing a health plan, if you don’t mind paying higher premiums to have a greater percentage of your health care costs paid by your health insurer, a gold-tier plan might be a good choice for you. If the idea of having to pay, on average, only 20 percent of your health care expenses out of your own pocket rather than 30 or 40 percent, appeals to you, then a gold plan will be a good match.

Gold plans are likely to appeal to people who expect to use their health insurance, who fear being responsible for high coinsurance rates, or who can afford to pay a bit more for a little extra peace of mind than they’d have with a silver or bronze plan.

But as noted above, in 2018 (and likely beyond, assuming insurers continue to add the cost of cost-sharing reductions to silver plan premiums), it may make more sense to buy a gold plan simply because it's less expensive than a silver plan, despite offering better coverage. For people who qualify for cost-sharing reductions, the silver plan is likely to provide a better value. But for people who don't qualify for cost-sharing reductions (ie, their income is above 250 percent of the poverty level, or $30,150 for a single individual in 2018), a gold plan may end up providing better coverage with lower premiums.

Why Not Choose a Gold Pan?

Don’t choose a gold-tier health plan if a low monthly premium is the most important factor to you. You’re likely to have lower premiums if you choose a silver or bronze plan, instead (except, as noted above, in situations where a gold plan ends up costing less than a silver plan).

If you’re eligible for cost-sharing subsidies because your income is 250 percent of federal poverty level or lower, you’re only eligible for the cost-sharing subsidies if you choose a silver-tier plan and buy it on your health insurance exchange. You won’t get the cost-sharing subsidies if you choose a gold plan even though your income might be low enough to qualify.

Cost-sharing subsidies make your deductible, copays, and coinsurance lower so you pay less when using your health insurance. In effect, a cost-sharing subsidy will increase the value of your health plan without raising the monthly premiums. It’s like getting a free upgrade on health insurance. If you choose a silver plan rather than a gold plan, your cost-sharing subsidy could help you get the same value you would have gotten with a gold or platinum plan, but for the lower premiums of a silver plan. You won’t get the free upgrade if you choose a gold tier plan.