They're self-employed or work for a small business that doesn't offer coverage. Or they retire early, forcing them to find so-called bridge coverage until they become eligible for Medicare. Or perhaps they divorce, costing them coverage under their former spouse's policy.

"About 17 million Americans buy their own health insurance every year," says Ellen Laden, spokeswoman for Golden Rule Insurance Co., which sells individual health insurance coverage.

"Generally, when you're buying an individual policy, there are no guaranteed admissions," says Ben Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance.

"With an individual plan, the consumer pays 100 percent of the premium cost," says Ms. Laden. "With a group plan, the consumer pays only a fraction, or perhaps even none of the premium cost. An individual plan, therefore, would always cost the consumer more."

Consider a healthy, 35-year-old nonsmoking male who chooses an individual health plan that offers access to a preferred provider organization that requires a $1,500 deductible, with 80/20 co-insurance and co-payments for doctor visits and prescription drugs.

A Health Savings Account allows people to save for health care expenses tax-free, but to qualify for the tax benefits, account holders must have high deductibles. The higher costs make it essential to be a wise shopper for individual policies.

"There is quite a bit of variation in price and coverage," says Rod Bordelon, Texas public insurance counsel, who represents consumers before the Texas insurance department. "There is bare-bones coverage to full-fledged Cadillac policies."

HMO plans - These are managed care plans offered by HMOs that pay for covered health services as long as you use your HMO's network of providers or receive preauthorization for obtaining care outside the network.

Hospital surgical policies - These cover only expenses directly related to hospital and surgical services, such as daily room, surgery and doctor charges.

Specified or dread disease policies - These cover specific illnesses, such as cancer or AIDS. This coverage also may be offered as a rider to extend the other types of individual coverage.

Short-term policies - These last for only a specified length of time, not to exceed 12 months. These are most often purchased as a fill-the-gap measure by people who lose coverage for some reason but expect to regain it.

"As a rule, it's better to buy one comprehensive HMO or major medical policy," according to the Texas insurance department's guide to health coverage.

Lisa McGiffert, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union in Austin, says individual health policies are "pretty unfriendly plans for consumers to sort through.

"You have fewer protections in an individual plan," she notes. "With individual plans, you are out there on your own. Whatever health problems you've experienced, chances are, you're not going to be able to get any coverage for it."

"There are no two plans that are just alike," says Dianne Longley, special projects director for the life, health and licensing program at the Texas Department of Insurance. "It can be challenging.

"You need to ask whether maternity services are covered, whether well-woman checkups are covered," says Alina Salganicoff, director of women's health policy at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health care issues. "Is there a good network of physicians in these plans?"

The foundation says women are less likely to be eligible for or to participate in their employer's health plans, because they're more likely to work part time, have lower incomes or rely on spousal coverage.

"It puts women in a more vulnerable position," Ms. Salganicoff says. "Should they become divorced or widowed, their source of coverage - their husband - disappears."

In the end, searching for an individual health insurance policy isn't easy, but if you do your homework, you may find one that meets your needs.

"People are used to having someone else pay for their health insurance costs when they've worked for an employer," says Ms. Laden of Golden Rule.

"When they go into the individual market for the first time, they experience sticker shock," she says. "Affordability and accessibility to quality health care are really the keys in looking for individual health insurance."

PERSONAL FINANCE This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. More headlines...

This is cache, read story here