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Career Q&A | By Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune

Insurance gap is fixable

Q: I work at a small company and am looking for a new job. My company is too small to have COBRA, so I'm worried that when I switch to my next employer I'll have a monthlong gap in medical coverage. Is there something I can do? Or do I just have to pray I don't get sick? Will my next insurance ding me for pre-existing conditions because of the gap?

A: This is a big concern for anyone switching jobs. Although some companies have insurance plans that start covering new employees right away, that's far from universal; some have one-month waiting periods before benefits kick in, while others can be longer.

I spoke with Etti Baranoff, an associate professor of finance and insurance at Virginia Commonwealth University and an internationally recognized expert on the subject. (She's kind of the LeBron James of insurance, only more reliable in the clutch.)

She said, first off, there's nothing to worry about in terms of pre-existing conditions unless you're taking an unusually long time off between jobs.

"You cannot have any break in coverage of more than 63 days," Baranoff said. "After that, any new employer's insurance plan can start you with new pre-existing conditions."

As for the gap, the only real option is to seek short-term coverage, which is readily available and, if you're healthy, not terribly expensive. It's not comprehensive, but it'll protect you against anything catastrophic.

"They can stop paying when the new employer's coverage begins, and it probably won't wind up costing them that much," Baranoff said. "Healthy people can buy — for very, very cheap — very good health insurance individually."

To find short-term policies, Baranoff suggested the website

She also noted that gambling on a month or so without coverage is unwise: "If the person decides to go uncovered and slips on ice and has to go to the ER, he won't get any of the discounts that insurance companies negotiate. It can cost a lot of money to have a broken leg cared for."

Be honest, but frame walk-out properly

Q: Just read your recent column regarding not quitting a job until a new one is lined up. Too late. My son left his job almost two years ago for one of those reasons mentioned in your column and is still unemployed. How should he answer the question, "Why did you leave your last job?"

A: For those of you who might have missed the column this reader's referring to, it advised against letting your emotions get the better of you and walking out on a job. The primary reason is because you'll have to explain your abrupt departure to future interviewers, who might not be thrilled about a "take this job and shove it" experience.

But it happens. And if it does, properly frame and acknowledge what happened without getting bogged down.

Sharon Birkman, chief executive of Birkman International, a company that devises personality assessments for workplace team-building and leadership development, said you should steer clear of any "well, my boss was a jerk" explanations.

"You'd want to say something like, 'I felt I was unable to be on any kind of meaningful career path and I felt that by exiting I could find more fulfilling work,' " Birkman said. "You say you were increasingly frustrated with your inability to advance. Then hopefully you can turn it to the strength side: 'Here's what I'd love to do, and here's what I think I can bring to your team or company.' "

The key is to pivot quickly. Admit to what happened and bring it back to what you can do to help the prospective employer.

This holds true for anyone who has a resume gap, whether you quit, were laid off or took time out to raise a family or care for a loved one. (It's also not a bad idea to highlight the things you've done while out of the workforce, as anything from parenting to volunteer work can be a feather in your cap.)

If you quit your previous job, Birkman said there's also nothing wrong with admitting you made a mistake.

"If they press you, you can acknowledge that in retrospect you wish you had not left so quickly," she said. "You can say you were a little impulsive or that you failed to factor in the fact that we're in a recession. Honesty is always best. People will forgive a transgression, but they have a hard time with a cover-up."

Insurance gap is fixable 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 4:30am]
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