How to Determine Primary & Secondary Health Insurance Coverage

You can't get extra cleanings or checkups even with two dental policies.

You can't get extra cleanings or checkups even with two dental policies.

If you and your partner are covered on each other's health insurance, you don't get to double-dip on benefits. You can't file the same bill with both insurers and get paid twice, or get twice as many annual checkups. Whenever you, your partner or your kids go to the doctor, you have to determine which insurer is primary.


When you need a doctor, you can't pick between the two insurers based on which offers better coverage. If it's your broken finger, say, that you want treated, your insurer is always primary. Likewise, if it's your partner who needs an antibiotic prescription, her insurance pays primary coverage. Depending on the scope of the coverage, the secondary insurance may not kick in at all. It definitely won't play a role until the primary insurer has paid as much of the bill as it can.


If your children are covered under both your plans, what insurers call the birthday rule kicks in. Your insurance is primary for dependents if you're born earlier in the year; if it's your partner, her insurance is primary. It doesn't matter how much older one of you is than the other, only whose birthday date is first in the calendar. If the two of you have the same birthday, whichever one has been covered longer gets to be primary.


The birthday rule doesn't apply to every family. If your partner has a group plan and you have an individual policy, your spouse's plan is primary for the kids. If you have regular insurance and your partner is getting by on COBRA, it's your plan out in front. In a divorce, whichever of you has custody is primary. If the custodial parent remarries, his partner's insurance is secondary and the non-custodial parent's comes in third place.

Secondary Benefits

If the primary insurance covers a bill completely, the secondary policy is irrelevant. It's when the primary insurance leaves some of the medical bills unpaid that having two policies pays off. Suppose your child goes in for $3,000 worth of dental work and the primary policy has a 50 percent co-pay. That leaves you with $1,500, but you can look to the secondary policy to help with that. Secondary health insurance will pay up to its own policy limit, but you can never recoup more than the actual medical bill.


About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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