A Beginner’s Guide to Health Insurance Terms and Definitions

What is Health Insurance?

Health insurance is a contract between you and an insurance company that requires the insurer to pay some or all of your healthcare costs in exchange for a premium. This can include costs for medical treatments, doctor visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, and preventive services.

Why is Health Insurance Important?

Health insurance helps mitigate the high costs of medical care. Without it, you could face significant financial strain from unexpected medical bills. Insurance ensures that you have access to necessary healthcare services and provides financial protection in case of serious illness or injury.

2. Key Terms and Definitions


The premium is the amount you pay to your health insurance company, typically on a monthly basis, to maintain your coverage. It is a fixed cost that you pay regardless of whether you use any medical services during that period.


The deductible is the amount you must pay out-of-pocket for healthcare services before your insurance plan begins to pay. For example, if your plan has a $1,000 deductible, you must spend $1,000 on medical services before your insurer starts covering a portion of the costs.

Copayment (Copay)

A copayment, or copay, is a fixed amount you pay for a specific healthcare service or prescription drug. For instance, you might pay $20 for a doctor visit or $10 for a prescription. Copays typically apply after you have met your deductible.


Coinsurance is the percentage of costs you share with your insurance company after you’ve met your deductible. For example, if your coinsurance rate is 20%, you will pay 20% of the costs of covered services, and your insurer will pay the remaining 80%.

Out-of-Pocket Maximum

The out-of-pocket maximum is the most you will have to pay for covered services in a plan year. Once you reach this limit, your insurance company will cover 100% of your covered medical expenses. This includes your deductible, copayments, and coinsurance.


A network is a group of doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers that have agreed to provide services to the insurance company’s policyholders at discounted rates. Providers in the network are called in-network providers. Those not in the network are out-of-network providers, and visiting them usually results in higher costs.

3. Types of Health Insurance Plans

Health Maintenance Organization (HMO)

An HMO plan requires you to choose a primary care physician (PCP) and get referrals from your PCP to see specialists. HMOs typically have lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs but offer less flexibility in choosing healthcare providers.

Preferred Provider Organization (PPO)

A PPO plan offers more flexibility in choosing healthcare providers and does not require referrals for specialists. You can see any doctor you like, but you’ll pay less if you use providers in the PPO’s network. PPOs generally have higher premiums than HMOs.

Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO)

An EPO plan requires you to use the insurance company’s network of doctors and hospitals, except in emergencies. Unlike HMOs, EPOs do not require referrals to see specialists. These plans offer a balance between the flexibility of PPOs and the cost savings of HMOs.

Point of Service (POS)

A POS plan is a hybrid of HMO and PPO plans. Like an HMO, you need a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist. However, like a PPO, you can see out-of-network providers but at a higher cost.

High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP)

An HDHP features higher deductibles and lower premiums. These plans are often paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) or Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) that allow you to save money tax-free for medical expenses.

4. Supplemental Health Insurance


Medicare is a federal program that provides health insurance for people aged 65 and older, and for some younger people with disabilities. It consists of different parts:

  • Part A: Hospital insurance
  • Part B: Medical insurance
  • Part C (Medicare Advantage): An alternative to Original Medicare that offers additional benefits
  • Part D: Prescription drug coverage


Medicaid is a state and federal program that provides health coverage for low-income individuals and families. Eligibility and benefits vary by state, but the program generally covers hospital stays, doctor visits, long-term care, and other medical services.

CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program)

CHIP provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance. Like Medicaid, CHIP is jointly funded by state and federal governments.

5. Health Savings Accounts and Flexible Spending Accounts

Health Savings Account (HSA)

An HSA is a tax-advantaged savings account available to individuals enrolled in a High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). Funds contributed to an HSA can be used to pay for qualified medical expenses, and contributions, interest, and withdrawals are tax-free.

Flexible Spending Account (FSA)

An FSA is a tax-advantaged account that allows you to set aside money to pay for qualified medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, FSAs are typically funded by employee contributions through payroll deductions, and the funds must be used within the plan year or are forfeited.

6. Understanding Your Benefits

Explanation of Benefits (EOB)

An EOB is a statement sent by your insurance company after you receive healthcare services. It outlines what services were provided, how much your provider charged, how much your insurance paid, and what you owe. It is not a bill but a detailed summary of your claim.

Prior Authorization

Prior authorization, or pre-authorization, is a requirement that your doctor obtain approval from your health insurance company before prescribing a specific medication or performing a particular service. This ensures that the service is medically necessary and covered by your plan.


A formulary is a list of prescription drugs covered by your health insurance plan. It includes both generic and brand-name medications and is typically divided into tiers. Lower-tier drugs cost less, while higher-tier drugs cost more.

Provider Directory

A provider directory is a list of healthcare providers, including doctors, hospitals, and specialists, that are part of your insurance plan’s network. Using providers in this directory helps ensure that you receive care at lower, in-network rates.

7. Navigating Healthcare Services

Primary Care Physician (PCP)

A primary care physician is a doctor who provides general medical care and coordinates your overall healthcare. Your PCP is often your first point of contact for health issues and can refer you to specialists if needed.


A specialist is a doctor who focuses on a specific area of medicine, such as cardiology or dermatology. You may need a referral from your PCP to see a specialist, depending on your insurance plan.

In-Network vs. Out-of-Network

In-network providers have agreements with your insurance company to offer services at negotiated rates. Using in-network providers reduces your out-of-pocket costs. Out-of-network providers do not have these agreements, often resulting in higher costs for you.

8. Claims and Appeals


A claim is a request for payment that you or your healthcare provider submits to your insurance company after you receive services. The insurer reviews the claim and determines how much of the service cost is covered under your plan.


If your insurance company denies a claim or pays less than you believe it should, you have the right to appeal the decision. An appeal is a request for your insurer to review and reconsider the claim. There are usually multiple levels of appeal, and the process can vary by insurer.

9. Legal Protections and Rights

Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is a law enacted to increase health insurance quality and affordability, lower the uninsured rate, and reduce healthcare costs. Key provisions include:

  • Prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions
  • Allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26
  • Expanding Medicaid eligibility
  • Establishing health insurance marketplaces

COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act)

COBRA allows you to keep your employer-sponsored health insurance for a limited time after losing your job or experiencing a reduction in work hours. You must pay the full premium, which can be expensive, but it provides continuity of coverage during transitions.

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)

HIPAA protects your health information privacy and security. It also gives you rights over your health information and sets rules for who can access and receive your health data. Additionally, HIPAA helps ensure that individuals can transfer and continue health insurance coverage when they change or lose their jobs.

10. Tips for Choosing the Right Health Insurance Plan

Assess Your Healthcare Needs

Consider your health history, current medical conditions, and any expected medical needs for the upcoming year. This will help you determine the type and amount of coverage you need.

Compare Plans

Review multiple health insurance plans, comparing premiums, deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximums. Use tools like online marketplaces or consult with insurance brokers to help you make informed comparisons.

Check the Provider Network

Ensure that your preferred doctors, hospitals, and specialists are in the plan’s network. This will help you avoid higher out-of-pocket costs associated with out-of-network care.

Consider Prescription Drug Coverage

Check the plan’s formulary to ensure that any medications you take regularly are covered. Pay attention to the cost-sharing details for your prescriptions.

Review Additional Benefits

Some plans offer extra benefits like wellness programs, telehealth services, or discounts on gym memberships. Consider these added values when choosing a plan.

Understand the Fine Print

Read the plan’s Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) to understand what is covered and what is not. Pay attention to any exclusions or limitations.


Understanding health insurance terms and definitions is crucial for navigating the complex landscape of healthcare coverage. By familiarizing yourself with the basics, key terms, types of plans, and additional protections, you can make more informed decisions and select the best plan for your needs. Remember, health insurance is not just a financial product but a vital tool for accessing necessary medical care and maintaining your overall well-being.