Health Insurance for Volunteers

Many Americans get their health insurance through their employer, but what if you are a volunteer? As a volunteer, it is a little more difficult to navigate but there are several choices when it comes to health insurance coverage.
By Beth W.
Updated Oct 14, 2020
health insurance for volunteers
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Volunteerism is a cherished tradition among Americans, and a big part of that effort occurs in other nations as well as in the US. If you are planning to volunteer, you must deal with a myriad of details including managing your health insurance. This process is more difficult than for other workers because volunteers give their time for free and rarely have much money coming in. And yet, you must be sure that you are covered while you serve and after you leave the organization. However, getting the right insurance can be challenging.

Fortunately, as a volunteer, you have several choices when it comes to your health insurance, but be certain to research each one carefully. You must compare coverage, price and duration before you leave home so you'll be able to get the medical care you need when you are far away.

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Volunteer in an Organization that Provides Coverage

Some non-profit organizations provide healthcare and/or health insurance while you serve. For instance, the Peace Corps maintains a health staff wherever they are, so volunteers can receive basic services from those medical professionals. If you need more advanced care, the Peace Corps will transport you to an appropriate facility and pay for your treatment. In addition, they pay for a month of healthcare insurance after you leave them to give you time to obtain new coverage. Other volunteer organizations offer some type of health care as well, although it may not be as extensive. Before you commit to volunteer, find out exactly what type of coverage the organization offers, if it offers any all. If it doesn't offer adequate health insurance, you need to weigh other options. 

Volunteer Abroad and Enroll in Foreign Country's Insurance Plan

If you are a long-term volunteer, some countries may allow you to buy into their national healthcare system. The rules for qualifying for this insurance vary widely as do the benefits involved. You will need to determine if buying foreign insurance is a reasonable option for you. Also, consider if you are comfortable with the country's healthcare system. Can it provide the care you might need in an emergency? Can it address your pre-existing conditions? If you want the option to evacuate in case of a serious illness, make sure you can afford the cost. Otherwise, you will be stuck abroad for the duration of your illness.

Buy Medicaid Coverage if You Are an In-State Volunteer

Medicaid benefits differ between states, but they are designed to cover healthcare for low-income individuals and families. Depending on where you volunteer and the income you earn from other sources, you may qualify. While states can decide the level of optional benefits they provide, they must offer the following services: inpatient and outpatient hospital services, physician services, x-ray and laboratory services and home health services. States may opt to give you prescription drug benefits, physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc. Before you commit, check out the state's own Medicaid webpage. 

Purchase Short-term Health Insurance

You may decide that a short-term health insurance policy will best suit your needs, particularly if you are volunteering for a year or less. These plans serve as a bridge between more traditional policies. These plans offer limited benefits that are primarily meant to cover emergency services such as hospitalization and inpatient doctor visits. The deductibles are usually high and the benefits are limited. These policies do not fall under the rules for the insurance plans on the nation's healthcare marketplace, although some offer more protections than others. If you are healthy with no pre-existing conditions, this type of coverage may work for you while you are a volunteer.

Buy Travel Insurance with Health Care Benefits

Simple travel insurance covers items like lost luggage, trip cancelations and supplier bankruptcies. But you can buy travel insurance that also covers medical emergencies. If you are volunteering for a short period of time, this option may be the best choice for you. The medical component acts much like short-term health insurance policies, so the coverage is limited. You will not get the same protections that you would with policies that are approved by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but you will be covered in case of unexpected illnesses and accidents. These policies are both convenient and affordable for many volunteers.

Stay on Family Insurance Policy

When the US government passed the ACA, it included young adult coverage that allowed parents to keep or add their adult children to their policies up to the age of 26. Once a child reaches that age, they enter into a special enrollment period that lets them buy their own plan outside of the regular enrollment period. Young adult coverage rules stipulate that children may join their parents' plan even if they are:

  • Married

  • Do not live at home

  • Attend school

  • Are financially independent from their family

  • Are eligible to enroll in their employer's health plan

This provision has been greatly beneficial to many young adults. If you are a volunteer under the age of 26, you should ask your parents to keep you on their plan.

Buy from the Marketplace (ACA/Obamacare)

In 2010, the US government passed the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, with the mission to offer affordable, quality healthcare to everyone, particularly those who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford their policies

The ACA includes protections for pre-existing conditions, coverage for free preventative care and no caps on lifetime coverage, among other provisions. Also, policyholders qualify for subsidies depending on their yearly income. Often, these subsidies are hundreds of dollars each month.

In addition, some states have embraced expanded Medicaid, which is part of the ACA. It allows you to receive benefits if you make more than the poverty level but are still low income. These provisions vary state to state, however, with some states refusing to adopt this program at all.

As a volunteer, you should be able to find an affordable policy in the Healthcare Marketplace that will serve you during your term of service.

Invest in a COBRA Plan after You Quit Your Job

If you have savings or other forms of income, you may opt to stay on your employer-provided plan from your previous job. COBRA, or the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows you to pay premiums for up to 18 months after your employment ends. 

The law lets you keep your coverage, but you have to pay your share as well as your employer's share, which adds up, particularly since employers typically pay around 82% of the premiums. Plus, the company will charge you a 2% administrative charge. That means many Americans refuse COBRA because the price is simply too high.

After you leave your job, you'll have 60 days to decide whether to take COBRA. Your 18 months of coverage begins once you sign up. This choice won't work for volunteers living on a shoestring. But if you have significant financial resources, this option may benefit you, at least for a short period of time.

Explore Your Options with PolicyScout

Once you sign up to volunteer, you should move quickly to find the right health insurance. If your non-profit organization does not provide health care and/or healthcare coverage, you need to provide your own. Fortunately, you have a number of affordable choices.

PolicyScout allows you to find multiple insurance options in minutes. Simply enter some basic information, and you'll immediately see insurance plans that will meet your needs. You can choose from short-term, limited coverage policies to full, ACA-approved plans. Start your search now so that you are properly covered before your volunteer stint begins.

Final Thoughts

Volunteering is one of the most selfless things you can do. But while you are helping others, do not neglect your own needs. You must have your health care lined up before you begin your position, whether it is stateside or abroad. And if you are going to a foreign country, it's even more important that you be adequately covered. Falling ill thousands of miles away can be particularly terrifying, especially if you cannot pay for your care. Eliminate that possibility by finding a good health insurance policy today. Then you can concentrate on the excellent work you are doing for others.