CoPatient: Helping You Answer “Is This a Reasonable Medical Bill?”

copatient0High-deductible health plans are still growing in popularity. While these can be a great way to save on your monthly premiums, it also means that when you do have to visit the emergency room, you get to tackle nearly the entire bill instead of a small co-pay. The problem is that most medical bills cannot be understood by mere mortals. Likely, the doctors and nurses themselves have no clue how that $6,344 bill for a broken arm got generated.

Right now there are honest people that just got their bill, but they are frantically doing internet research because they have no idea if their huge bill is correct or what is “reasonable”. It would be nice for this problem not to exist, but until then I wanted to point out a service called CoPatient. They are made of health insurance company veterans and hire their own medical billers and coders.

You send them your unpaid medical bills, and they review it for free to determine if there are any errors or overcharges. They will send you a free estimate of what they think they can do for you. If you allow them to negotiate on your behalf, they work on a contingency basis and keep 35% of the actual savings. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing.


Here’s an example patient flowchart (click to enlarge):


The legwork that the consumer needs to do is request a detailed, itemized bill from the hospital providers. Some tips from ABC News:

Ask what services are covered under your room and facility charges
Ask what treatments were provided
Identify the date and time of when you were admitted
Clarify medical terminology that is confusing
Specifically look for erroneous double charges, for mischarges, and for situations where a charge defies common sense (e.g., a $22 Q tip).

Here are some quick stats, taken from their website and marketing materials:

More than 80 percent of the medical bills that CoPatient analyzes provide opportunities for meaningful savings. On average, CoPatient saves its customers 40 percent on their medical bills. Since its launch in 2014, CoPatient has saved consumers more than $1 million.

According their iPhone app page, CoPatient finds errors on 80% of all bills it reviews and saves folks an average of $3,000. Their FAQ states that it usually takes ~5 days for the review (more for complicated cases), and 3-6 weeks for the appeals and negotiation process. There is no minimum bill size, they will investigate that $500 unpaid bill.

I’ve never used CoPatient myself, but I would definitely consider it if I was faced with a $5,000+ bill that I didn’t understand. I mean, what would I have to lose?

On a related note, this is yet another consumer service that offers to save money on a contingency basis. That is, they only make money if they save you money. A few others:

  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Consumer Reports on Auto Insurance: Watch Your Credit Score, Shopping Behavior

cr_auto0Consumer Reports (CR) has released a multi-part Special Report on Auto Insurance, included in their September 2015 print issue but also available online without a subscription (at least for now). They analyzed over 2 billion quotes from over 700 companies across 33,419 zip codes. Here are some highlights of what they found.

First, here’s a big picture view of which major car insurers are more expensive on average.


The biggest individual factor in your premium may be your credit score. Clicking on your state on this 50-state interactive map will give you an idea of the effect of having a “poor” or merely “good” credit score as opposed to an “excellent” one. California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts are the only states that prohibit insurers from using credit scores to set prices.

Often, having a poor credit score with clean driving record is more expensive than having an excellent credit with a DUI/DWI! Here’s a screenshot for Florida:


Another important factor is your loyalty and tendency to comparison shop other items like cable TV. You often think “Loyalty Discount”, but often there is a “Loyalty Penalty”. If you don’t shop your auto insurance, some companies don’t see something to be rewarded; they see a sucker. In my limited experience, the companies with the lowest quotes to entice you from another company are also the ones to hike up the rates every year afterward. Here’s what CR found:

Geico Casualty gave us whiplash with its $3,267 loyalty penalty in New Jersey and its $888 discount just across the state line in New York for longtime customers. State Farm Mutual consistently provided discounts of a couple of dollars up to a few hundred dollars; Allstate Fire and Casualty and Allstate Property & Casualty tended to prefer penalties.

As noted in a previous post, Big Data knows if you’re comparison shopping or not. Such “price optimization” occurs when they find out you could have saved money somewhere else like broadband internet, but didn’t. Not a price-sensitive shopper? You may get the higher rates. Even states that officially ban the practice don’t really have any foolproof way to know if it’s happening. Here’s what CR found:

Amica Mutual and State Farm told us they don’t use price optimization. Representatives from Allstate, Geico, Progressive, and USAA declined to discuss price optimization.

Here’s the general conclusion:

What we found is that behind the rate quotes is a pricing process that judges you less on driving habits and increasingly on socioeconomic factors. These include your credit history, whether you use department-store or bank credit cards, and even your TV provider. Those measures are then used in confidential and often confounding scoring algorithms.

What can a consumer do about all this? Consumer Reports wants you to write to your state’s insurance commissioner, and they have a petition template ready for you. David Merkel of The Aleph Blog says you should simply fight back the market-based way: comparison shop your personal insurance lines every 3 years.

Bid it out. Bid it out. Bid it out. What do you have to lose? If loyalty means something to the insurer, they will likely win the bid. If it doesn’t, they will likely lose. Either way you will win. If you have an agent, they will note that you are price-sensitive. The agent will become more of an ally, even if it doesn’t seem that way.

[…] You don’t need transparency, or more regulation. You don’t get transparency in the pricing of many items. You do need to bid out your business every now and then. You are your own best defender in matters like this. Take your opportunity and bid out your policies.

I tend to agree with Mr. Merkel. However, I am still a long-time customer with State Farm. I’m happy to see that State Farm was found to consistently providing loyalty discounts and claims not to engage in price optimization. I shopped around for auto quotes in 2013 and GEICO was cheaper by about $372 a year. However, I had to balance that with the knowledge that GEICO will probably hike my premiums every year and also I’ve had excellent claim service from State Farm. Perhaps it is time for another comparison shop.

PolicyGenius Review: Long-Term Disability Insurance Quotes for Bloggers and Freelancers

policygenuis_logoI would say that the insurance with the highest ratio of most-needed to least-bought would be long-term disability insurance. According to the Social Security Administration, just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20-year-olds will be become disabled at some point before reaching 67. According to a Harvard study, lost income due to illness was a contributor in 40.3% of all personal bankruptcies in the US. Here is a chart that shows the average duration of disability claims lasting more than 90 days, measured from the start of disability to (at most) age 65.


Sometimes your employer offers group LTD coverage, but what happens when you switch to another job that doesn’t have it, or you get disabled while unemployed? Not all group plans are convertible to individual policies. Finally, what if you are self-employed? Many people are freelance graphic designers, writers, and other hard-to-define jobs.

PolicyGenius is one of many sites that offer online insurance quotes, but their specialty is straightforward information and non-pushy quotes for “young, self-directed people”. They sell:

  • Term life insurance
  • Long-term disability insurance
  • Renter’s insurance
  • Pet health insurance

I have to admit, the fact that they actually listed “blogger” as a legitimate job was the spark that made me want to get a quote from them. I also liked that they only sell term life insurance, and not whole life, permanent life, or indexed-confusing-whatevernot.

Another plus is that they have quotes from all seven major LTD insurers, and the quotes you get should be identical to everyone else’s for the exact same policy from the exact same insurer. That is, there are no various levels of markup depending on where you buy it from, like there is for Tide detergent or a Toyota Camry. The commission to the seller is already baked into the premiums.

I applied for a long-term disability insurance quote, which they call “insurance for your paycheck”. PolicyGenius has a modern, comfortable user interface. First, they’ll ask for basic information like gender, birthdate, and state of residence. Click on any screenshot to enlarge.


Income. Usually a policy won’t pay more than about 50% to 60% of your current income. I’m guessing they don’t want to make it too appealing an option!


Health info. Pre-existing conditions are usually excluded. The worse your health, the more likely you’ll become disabled.


Monthly benefit. Obviously the higher that is, the higher your premium.


Waiting period. The longer you are willing to wait before claiming a disability, the lower your premium.


Benefit period. How long do you want to be able to claim benefits?


Additional riders. There are coverage options which you can add or remove.


I made a quote with my own personal details, but also an additional quote for the following theoretical situation. The quotes still require additional underwriting, meaning you’ll probably have to submit supporting financial documents and complete a physical examination (blood, urine, body measurements). Here’s a rough outline:

  • Female, non-smoker, California resident, age 33.
  • Current income $5,000 a month. Policy benefit $3,400 a month.
  • Self-employed blogger for 5 years (classified as Reporters and Correspondents).
  • 90 day waiting period, claim until age 65.
  • Own occupation, residual disability, and non-cancelable.

After 3 business days, I was e-mailed a quote of $265 a month from Principal Financial Group for this situation. This was significantly higher than the $130 to $175 a month estimate that was given initially, and much higher than the $98 a month quote I got for myself. My guess is that my monthly benefit was relatively high at 68% of current salary? I have also read that women are quoted higher premium when statistically likely to have a baby since pregnancy causes a lot of disabilities. I wrote back to them asking what things I could tweak (like a lower monthly benefit and/or a 180-day waiting period) in order to get the premium down to around $100 a month.

If you do get a LTD quote yourself, be sure to read all the tips during the quote process and also wade through the entire detailed proposal package for what is excluded. My thoughts are to treat this as true insurance (as opposed to a payment plan), which means you are trying to just cover catastrophic events and hope to never make a claim. That means I tried to make the benefit just big enough, the waiting period as long as I could bear, but I kept the claim period to age 65 in case I become permanently disabled.

I’m sure there are other quote comparison websites out there and also good (human) independent insurance brokers. I chose to run a quote at PolicyGenius because it was easy, convenient, and less intimidating than other places that I’ve tried. If you’ve gotten individual long-term disability insurance, please share your own experiences in the comments.

Big Data Knows If You’re Comparison Shopping… Or Not

cheapscore0One of the few benefits of getting older is that my car insurance premiums are much lower today than in my 20s. But is that low rate caused by insurance companies knowing that I recently switched high-speed internet and refinanced my mortgage twice? Via drawpoker of Bogleheads, here’s an NPR article called Being A Loyal Auto Insurance Customer Can Cost You about the practice of “price optimization”.

“Well, it’s really profit maximization,” says Bob Hunter, with the Consumer Federation of America. He says insurance companies can buy software that compiles an astonishing amount of data on everyone who buys almost anything, anywhere.

“They have all the information on what you buy at your grocery store. How many apples, how many beers, how many steaks,” he says. “They have all the information on your house. They have incredible amounts of information on are you staying with DirecTV when Verizon is cheaper.”

A sophisticated algorithm crunches that data and spits out an index showing how sensitive a customer is to price increases. Only the insurance company knows the index.

From a USA Today article on the same topic:

Many insurance companies now use a sophisticated data-mining technique called “price optimization” to set rates just high enough that inertia keeps customers from shopping around. Research found that the longer customers had been with their insurers on average, the greater their savings when they switched, due to all the rate increases they experienced during their loyal years. […]

A 2013 Earnix survey found that 45% of large insurance companies and 26% of all insurance companies in North America currently optimize prices, with an additional 36% of all companies reporting they plan to adopt this technique in the future. What this means is that given two customers with identical risk profiles, the one who’s judged less likely to switch carriers if his rate increases will pay more.

In other words, forget just FICO scores affecting your insurance rates. Your grocery club card, your mortgage quote requests, your switching from cable to DSL, your social media activity, it all could be funneling into some sort of “Frugal Cheapskate” Score. If you don’t shop around elsewhere, you probably won’t shop around for your insurance so they can hike it up without worrying about you jumping ship.

If you want some hints as to where you should start your comparison shopping, you may want to check with your state insurance department. For example, California provides some numbers for your rough situation without needing any personally-identifying information. Here are some numbers for a married couple living in Alameda Country, driving 9k to 16k a year, with no accidents or violations. The lowest average premiums are coming from USAA, Wawanesa, and Anchor General.


Your Homeowner’s Insurance Deductible Should Be Catastrophically High

housemoneyThe NYT Times Haggler just helped a reader who made two small claims on his homeowner’s insurance for (1) a fallen ceiling fan and (2) a stolen bike. Not only did State Farm deny both claims, but they subsequently refused to renew his insurance the next year! This is a unique circumstance, and I’ve heard of co-workers with similar problems. But of course the power of daylight again helped this lucky reader:

After the Haggler’s interactions with State Farm, Mr. Joseph sent an email to the Haggler with the subject line “It worked!” A representative at the company had contacted him and, in conversation, was much more forthcoming than Ms. Risinger. Mr. Joseph learned that in New York City, the average for homeowners is one claim every 38 years.

“Two in two years,” Mr. Joseph recalled this rep telling him, “that makes us concerned.” But after digging deeper into Mr. Joseph’s claims, the company decided that it wanted to keep him as a customer.

You should never make a claim for such small things like a stolen bike or broken appliance (especially if apparently it’s not even covered). Every claim you make will be recorded in an insurance database forever. As a result, if you’re not going to make a $500 or $1,000 claim, then why would you set your deductible to $250 or $500? Set it to $2,500 or higher if you can swing it. I’ve been inching ours up over the years, and I believe it is now $10,000 and even higher for natural disaster insurance. Enjoy the lower premiums, but remember to stock up your emergency fund in return. I used to have a special rider for my wife’s engagement ring, but cancelled that as soon as the value become “non-catastrophic” for our finances.

And we’ve all learned a valuable lesson: Homeowner’s insurance is for disasters. Which means that if you’re lucky, you’ll spend money on it for years and years and never get a dime back.

Exactly. Insurance is not an investment, a maintenance plan, or a replacement for properly securing your property. Insurance is there to protect you from something truly catastrophic happening, like your entire house burning down and them putting you up in a residential hotel for months while they rebuild it (which happened to our friends).

Bottom line: If you have homeowner’s insurance, you should set your deductible as high as you can tolerate. It should be a painful number. Take your premium savings and put it towards your cash reserves.

FidSafe Review: Free Digital Document Storage from Fidelity

fidsafelogoI have a couple of accounts at Fidelity Investments (solo 401k and taxable brokerage), and recently they sent me letter about a new service. FidSafe is a website that stores digital copies of documents for free and is open to the public, no relationship with Fidelity required. (It is technically from Fidelity Labs, owned by Fidelity Investments.) I signed up for an account and took it for a spin.

Sign-up Process
You are only required to provide a name, e-mail, and birthdate (18+ only). It is highly recommended to provide a mobile phone number as well because they support two-factor authentication, and you can choose to have it activated for every login attempt or only on unfamiliar devices.


In addition to the two-step login authentication mentioned above, FidSafe states that all files are encrypted both in-transfer and while stored on their servers. You can also upload files that you encrypted yourself, although that will make them more difficult to share with others. FidSafe employee access to your personal data or documents is also restricted.

Finally, they have something called an “Identicon” that helps confirm that you are viewing a legitimate e-mail or web page from FidSafe. Similar to what some banks have when you log in. You can choose from a limited selection of patterns and colors:


Storage Limits
FidSafe users will each get 5 GB of storage space without charge. You can see your storage status under “Settings [Gear Icon] > General”. Individual files are limited to 200 MB in size. Files shared with you by others do not count against your storage consumption.

File Types
Their site states that files of any type can be uploaded. I uploaded various test files of PDF, PNG, JPG, DOCX (Word Documents), and XLSX (Excel Spreadsheets) formats and they all worked fine and were able to be shown by their in-browser viewing tool. As for what files to store, they provide a suggestion list in their FidSafe Fundamentals Kits here.

User Interface and Design
Here is a screenshot of the main dashboard. The user interface is clean, mobile-friendly, and relatively intuitive. They offer a brief walkthrough tour, and I found it easy to get started right away. (It really shouldn’t be that complicated in any case…)


Sharing Documents With Others
You can either choose to share specific personal documents with other users all the time, or designate someone to have access to all your documents only upon death. In both cases, the person you are sharing with must be invited through via e-mail and sign up for their own FidSafe login and password (and provide name, e-mail, birthdate).

For immediate sharing, your designated “Contact” can only view the specific documents you share with them. You can choose to give them view-only access or add the ability to download.


Here are some details on the “Share Upon Death” feature:

To sign-up for the service, under “Settings” you will provide the last 4 digits of your SSN and a designee (one of your existing FidSafe contacts). Upon notification of your death, FidSafe verifies your death certificate and shares your FidSafe content (only documents and notes; passwords are not shared) in the designee’s FidSafe account. Any time after signing up for this service, you can change the designee or unsubscribe to the service.

[…] When FidSafe is notified of your death (by family member, attorney, etc.), FidSafe collects the notifier’s contact information (first name, last name, email address, phone number) and decedent’s information (first name, last name, email address used for FidSafe registration). FidSafe will also need a copy of decedent’s certified death certificate mailed to the following address – Fidelity Labs FidSafe Support, 245 Summer Street V3A, Boston, MA 02210. If the death certificate is verified, FidSafe will share decedent content in designee’s FidSafe account.

Call 800-453-3332 or e-mail

Conclusions: The Good

  • Having a secure, central place where you store your family’s important documents can be quite useful for estate planning and other needs. There may be an emergency (fire, natural disaster, medical) or you might just be applying for a mortgage or a new passport.
  • Providing online access can make things much easier if important people live far apart.
  • There are numerous start-ups out there now that try to combine digital storage and estate planning, but FidSafe is backed by an established, reputable company (that may have a lot of your personal information already).
  • All available security mechanisms appear to be supported, including two-factor authentication and file encryption. I’m not sure what additional measures could be added.
  • Did I mention it’s free?! Other places can charge $75 a year.

Conclusions: The Concerns

  • The fact that this is a free feature can also be seen as a negative because what happens if Fidelity feels a need to “reorganize” or “streamline” their operations and discontinue the service. It probably isn’t a huge expense but it surely costs something to support. This is the type of service you’d want to be around indefinitely.
  • If you choose to share sensitive documents with other people, then you are depending on them to keep your information secure. If you share your file with someone who uses the same password everywhere or downloads the file onto their home computer (or even prints it out), then that can become the weakest link. Making things view-only is a partial solution.
  • FidSafe is digital-only, so original documents still need to be stored securely (although you can note their locations in FidSafe). You should also consider an offsite, physical backup of any computer files in someone else’s safe or a bank deposit box. (This Forbes article says high-quality optical discs may be more reliable for long-term storage than flash drives and hard drives.)

Big List of Free Consumer Reports (2/2): See Your Confidential Housing, Insurance, & Employment Data

magUpdated for 2015! As these are available only every 12 months, it is a good idea to check them the same time each year.

Here is the second part of my big list of free consumer reports from over 50 different reporting agencies. The first part included your credit, banking, and subprime lending-related information. This part includes your housing, insurance, and employment history. Request your free copy of what these databases have stored about you and are telling prospective landlords, insurers, or employers.

Again, you may not need to check all of these, and many may not even have a file on you anyway. But for example if you are a renter then you’d want to make sure your rental history is clean and correct, because if I was a landlord I’d avoid anyone with previous blemishes on their record.

Rental History

Realpage Consumer Report. Provides tenant screening through their LeasingDesk product, including “the industry’s largest rental payment history database.”

CoreLogic SafeRent. SafeRent provides both tenant and employment screening data, including information regarding landlord tenant and criminal public court records. One free report every 12 months.

Experian RentBureau Rental History Report. “Every 24 hours, Experian RentBureau receives updated rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies and makes that information available immediately to the multifamily industry through our resident screening partners.”

First Advantage Resident History Report. Tenant and employment background checks. One free report every 12 months.

Contemporary Information Corp. CIC provides background checks on prospective tenants and/or employees and contractors for landlords and management companies. Keep records of any rental evictions.

Tenant Data. Provides tenant history reports, including any reported damages, unpaid balances, evictions, lease violations, noise complaints, or unauthorized pets.

Auto and Property Insurance

C.L.U.E. Personal Property Report. A division of LexisNexis, CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, which collects information that is used to calculate your insurance premiums. This report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name. This also means you can find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

C.L.U.E. Auto Report. This report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

Verisk Analytics aka ISO aka A-PLUS Loss History Reports. ISO stands for Insurance Services Office, A-PLUS stands for Automated Property Loss Underwriting System. Auto and property loss claim history.

Insurance Information Exchange. Provide reports including your motor vehicle records and driver history, including any traffic violations or related criminal history. May require proof of adverse action to obtain free report.

  • report request page
  • 866-560-7015


National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange. NCTUE is a “membership of companies that provide services (telecommunication, pay TV, and utilities) […] to aid in risk mitigation.” Basically they track when people don’t pay their phone, cable, or utility bills. One free report every 12 months.

Medical History

MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau). Run by 470 insurance companies with a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” like medical conditions or hazardous activities. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Milliman IntelliScript. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. “Milliman IntelliScript will have prescription information about you only if you authorized the release of your medical records to an insurance company and that company requested that we gather a report on you.”

OptumRX / MedPoint Health Report. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. Now called OptumRX, formerly Ingenix.

Employment History

The following companies all offer background screening services for employers. Most will not have any information about you unless you authorized a potential employer to run a background check on you (probably during the application process). Some will not provide you information unless there was adverse action. Otherwise, you can get one free copy every 12 months.

The Work Number. (division of Equifax) They also keep historical income records.

Accurate Background, Inc.

American Databank, LLC.


General Information Services.

  • report request page
  • 866-265-4917


Info Cubic.



Professional Screening & Information, Inc.

  • report request page
  • 877-235-7574

SterlingBackcheck (formerly Sterling Infosystems)

Trak-1 Technology.

Verifications, Inc.

Reminder: Also see Part 1: Big List of Free Consumer Reports with Your Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data.

Sources:,,, Wikipedia

Big List of Free Consumer Reports (1/2): See Your Confidential Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data

magUpdated for 2015! Since these are available every 12 months, it is a good idea to check these near or around the same time each year.

There are many companies out there that make money by collecting and selling data – your personal data. In the past, it was often difficult if not impossible to see what they were telling prospective lenders, landlords, even employers about you. Under the FCRA and/or FACT Acts, many consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) are now legally required to send you a free copy of your report every 12 months, as well as provide a way to dispute incorrect information. I have split them into two parts:

Some have an online request form, but many require snail mail with proof of identity. You probably won’t want to bother checking all of them (for example if you rarely write checks or use payday loans), but if you’ve experienced any sort of rejection or adverse reaction in these areas the cause might be found inside one of these databases. Keep in mind that you may not have a file with all of these places.


Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The three major credit bureaus track your credit accounts, payment history, and other related information like bankrupts and liens. Free copy of each once every 12 months.

CoreLogic Credco. One of the largest credit-related CRAs and often used by mortgage lenders, your CoreLogic Credco Consumer File can contain: previous homeownership and mortgage info, rental payment history, any reported delinquencies, and other debt obligations like child support. Free copy once every 12 months.

LexisNexis. One of the largest personal information databases that includes public records, real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file. Free copy, must mail in form.

Innovis. A supplementary credit report and identity verification provider. Free copy once every 12 months.

IDA, Inc. Per their site, they are a “credit reporting agency that produces credit reports and scores from our repository of consumer information contributed by a wide array of companies including leading financial services organizations, wireless providers, utilities, retailers, auto lenders and many others.” Free copy, must mail in form.

  • request page
  • 866-361-7984

Microbilt and subsidiary Payment Reporting Builds Credit (PRBC). Microbilt is a credit reporting agency, per their site a “leading provider of alternative credit data to businesses that want to offer credit and other financial services to the approximately 110 million underserved and underbanked consumers in the United States.” Free copy once every 12 months.

L2C, Inc. A credit reporting agency, appears focused on the underbanked or unbanked population. Limited further details.


Chexsystems. A consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the banks’ version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or overdraws their account, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database. Having a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from opening bank accounts at most major banks. Free copy once every 12 months. Must order by phone, mail, or fax.

TeleCheck. Per their site, they provide “industry-leading check acceptance, check processing and risk analytics services to merchants and financial institutions.” One of the major companies that protect businesses and banks from bad checks. Must order by phone or mail.

Certegy Check Services. Per their site, a “check risk management company that provides verification, guarantee and risk analytics to thousands of businesses that choose to accept checks as a form of payment for goods or services.” Clients include check-cashing stores and casinos. Free copy once every 12 months. Must order by phone or mail.

Early Warning Services. A collaboration between a group of big banks including Bank of America, BB&T, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Provides fraud prevention and risk management in relation to bank accounts and payment transactions. Must order by phone.

Subprime-Related (Payday Lending)

The following companies focus on subprime customers with clients including payday lenders, title loan lenders, rent-to-own stores, and subprime auto loan providers.

Teletrack (affiliated with CoreLogic).

FactorTrust. Free copy once every 12 months.

Clarity Services, Inc. Must mail or fax form.

DataX Ltd. Must mail form.

Reminder: Also see Part 2: Big List of Free Consumer Reports with Your Confidential Housing, Insurance, & Employment Data.

This should serve as a mid-year notice, but I will refresh this post as a reminder around January 1st (that’s when I like to pull all my reports).

Sources:,, Wikipedia

2015 ACA Obamacare Income Qualification Chart

Open enrollment for obtaining health insurance from the Affordable Care Act-sponsored Health Insurance Marketplace for the 2015 calendar year starts on November 15th, 2014. (If you have a qualifying event like marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, loss employment, or loss of insurance then you can enroll at any time.)

Here is a chart to help you determine if you will qualify for lower premiums and/or lower out-of-pocket costs based on your estimated 2015 household income and household size. Get more details and sign-up for e-mail reminders at


The numbers above are for the contiguous 48 states. Income cutoffs are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

Estimated prices for 2015 plans are supposed to be available in “early November” but there are only 9 days until enrollment actually starts. I would hope that the actual 2015 premiums will have been finalized by then!

Our Family’s Retroactive COBRA Health Insurance Experience

healthIn order to extend her maternity leave, my wife is taking an unpaid leave-of-absence from her job. Since this means we will lose her employer-paid health insurance and our child has an issue that requires regular doctor visits at this time, we knew that we would have to sign up for COBRA benefits. Our employer-paid coverage ended 9/30. Somehow due to an administrative mishap, we did not get the paperwork until the third week of October, by which we already had four different (expensive!) doctor visits.

I have written before about the ability to get retroactive COBRA benefits, so I knew that we would be okay:

You have 60 days after you lose your benefits to elect to pay for COBRA coverage. However, even if you enroll on Day 60, your coverage is retroactive to Day 1. Of course, you’ll have to pay the retroactive premiums for that period. Thus, you could technically waive your COBRA coverage initially, and then wait to see if you incur any medical bills.

Her employer uses the big benefit provider Conexis to manage their COBRA administration. We were able to make our COBRA plan elections online and even paid the premiums online via electronic bank transfer. The process was much smoother than I thought it would be; some parts of the healthcare industry are just so archaic.

Our coverage was retroactive to 10/1, and all of our healthcare providers had to resubmit their claims. One thing that I didn’t expect what that we had to get new insurance card and insurance numbers for everyone in the family. I was also surprised that we were able to pick and choose amongst our original workplace options (Dependent coverage, HMO, PPO, etc.) I thought that COBRA meant we would just continue on with our exact same plan as before. Just wanted to share our story in case anyone was wondering how it worked.

Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Out-of-Pocket Cost Subsidies

healthPlease consider this an addendum to my previous post on Early Retirement and The Affordable Care Act.

In addition to subsidies on health insurance premiums, the Affordable Car Act (ACA) provides subsidies on out-of-pocket costs to qualifying households when buying insurance from an exchange. The income requirements are more restrictive, but they further improve affordability for those with lower incomes by reducing their deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and total out-of-pocket maximum limits.

Income eligibility requirements. In this case, the income cutoffs are 200% and 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is used for income. Modified takes your AGI (Line 4 on a Form 1040EZ, Line 21 on a Form 1040A, or Line 37 on a Form 1040) and adds back in certain deductions like non-taxable Social Security income, foreign income, and tax-exempt interest.

For reference, here are the 2014 FPLs by household size listed with the 200% and 250% levels, as calculated by the Department of Health and Human Services (for 48 contiguous states, higher in Alaska and Hawaii).

Persons in
100% FPL 200% FPL 250% FPL
1 $11,670 $23,340 $29,175
2 $15,730 $31,460 $39,325
3 $19,790 $39,580 $49,475
4 $23,850 $47,700 $59,625
5 $27,910 $55,820 $69,775


Deductible, copayment and, coinsurance subsidies. These cost-sharing subsidies are only available if you start with buying a Silver plan. Now, the idea of a Silver plan is the insurer will pay 70% of covered health expenses across the entire population, leaving the insured to pay 30%. However, if your income is 150% FPL or less, you’ll only have to pay 6% of covered health expenses. If your income is between 150% and 200% FPL, you’ll only pay 13%. If your income is between 200% and 250% FPL, you’ll have to pay 27%.

Each plan will have a different way of implementing this overall requirement, usually by tweaking deductibles and copays. These may be referred to as Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) plans.

Out-of-pocket maximum subsidies. The Affordable Care Act limits your maximum out-of-pockets expenses per year. Once you reach this limit, your insurance will pay for all of your covered healthcare expenses for the rest of the year. However, if you are under 200% or 250% FPL, these limits are even lower.

Modified Adjusted Gross Income 2014 maximum annual out-of-pocket cost, individual 2014 maximum annual out-of-pocket cost, family
100-200% FPL $2,250 $4,500
200-250% FPL $5,200 $10,400
> 250% FPL $6,350 $12,700


Note that you may read conflicting information elsewhere about reduced out-of-pocket limits being available to anyone at 400% FPL or less. That information is outdated (source). Those numbers were in the original law, but it was since revised to what is shown above.

Recap. These subsidies for out-of-pocket expenses provide another important income cutoff point to consider when purchasing health insurance independently from an employer plan. Your total healthcare expenses could vary significantly if your income is just $1 over the cutoff points of 200%, 250%, and 400% FPL.

More: (really wish this site was better), Kaiser Family Foundation, UC Berkeley Labor Center

Early Retirement and The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

healthBy now, we’ve all read things about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known as Obamacare. One concern is the PPACA’s impact on early retirees, or really anyone who wants to buy their own non-employer health insurance? The PPACA is eliminating many high-deductible health plans which many such folks previously used due to their low premiums. But at the same time, many others who didn’t pass the medical screening were faced with astronomical premiums if you could get coverage at all. Could the PPACA actually improve the overall affordability of comprehensive health care?

I’m not going to claim I completely understand everything about the PPACA and I certainly won’t cover it all here, I can only try to provide concise a few examples with sources.

What do I get? First, let’s recap some basics about the insurance you can buy on the new exchanges. You can no longer be denied insurance due to your health history, minimum coverage levels were set for all plans, and certain preventative care services are now free without copays. Taken from the PPACA Wikipedia page:

Guaranteed issue prohibits insurers from denying coverage to individuals due to pre-existing conditions, and a partial community rating requires insurers to offer the same premium price to all applicants of the same age and geographical location without regard to gender or most pre-existing conditions (excluding tobacco use). […]

Under the law’s authorization, Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius issued a set of defined “essential health benefits”[22] that all new insurance plans have to include. […] Among the essential health benefits, preventive care, childhood immunizations and adult vaccinations, and medical screenings are covered by an insurance plan’s premiums, and cannot be subject to any co-payments, co-insurance, or deductibles.

Am I eligible for a subsidy? Subsidies for healthcare premiums are determined by your income relative to the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Here are the 2014 FPLs by household size, as calculated by the Department of Health and Human Services (for 48 contiguous states, higher in Alaska and Hawaii).

Persons in family/household 100% FPL 400% FPL
1 $11,670 $46,680
2 $15,730 $62,920
3 $19,790 $79,160
4 $23,850 $95,400
5 $27,910 $111,640

Your household’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must be below 400% FPL in order to receive a subsidy. As long as you are below 400% FPL, your health insurance premiums cannot exceed 9.5% of your income. Modified takes your AGI (Line 4 on a Form 1040EZ, Line 21 on a Form 1040A, or Line 37 on a Form 1040.) and adds back in certain deductions like non-taxable Social Security income, foreign income, and tax-exempt interest.

You may be surprised that a family of four could have an MAGI of $95,000 and still be eligible for a subsidy.

How much will it cost for a couple with no kids? Let’s assume a couple, both age 40, California resident, and $60,000 MAGI. This is under 400% FPL so they get a subsidy. California’s exchange website is Here are results for a middle-of-the-road Silver plan for the couple with $60,000 income:


Let’s pick the cheapest Blue Cross Blue Shield option:


The total quoted was $354 a month, or $177 per person, per month after subsidies.

If they made $95,000 a year, then they would have no subsidy and be quoted just the flat $340 per month, per person.

How much will it cost for a family of four? Let’s try 2 adults, both 40 years old, and 2 dependents under 18. They live in California and make $60,000 MAGI a year. Here are results for a Silver plan for the family with $60,000 income:


Let’s pick the cheapest Blue Cross Blue Shield option:


The total quoted was $354 a month after $326 a month in subsidies. I was somewhat surprised to see that the kids would be covered by Medi-Cal, which is commonly considered a welfare program for low-income families.

Here are results for a Silver plan for the family with $95,000 income:


Let’s pick the cheapest Blue Cross Blue Shield option:


The total quoted was $676 a month after $342 of subsidy. Most of the difference between the $60,000 income figures was due to the fact that I would have to pay for dependent coverage.

Recap. The primary takeaway is that you should try and get some actual quotes, as you may be surprised by your findings. While you can play around with the California website pretty easily, note that other states may offer a much more frustrating experience at their exchange. Alternatively, you can try a comparison site like which also has ACA-compliant individual plans. I tried various ages up to the 60s (before Medicare kicks in at 65) and the numbers didn’t rise significantly. If I was a retired couple under 65 and on a budget, I would consider paying under $200 a month per person to be “affordable”. Even if you aren’t retired, these numbers may allow many people to pursue self-employment when otherwise they would be scared to lose employer-linked group health insurance.

The secondary takeaway is that the subsidy is significant, and it may take some planning to qualify for it upon early retirement. If you miss the income cutoff by even a small amount, you end up paying thousands more in premiums. Qualification also looks at your most recent tax return, which may not reflect your current income. If you are transitioning to early retirement, you likely had a high savings rate which means your past income might be high while your income needs in retirement could be much lower. I need to do more research on if you can get the subsidy retroactively in this type of situation.

Update: I wrote an additional post about Affordable Care Act out-of-pocket cost subsidies.