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I heard the government has a health insurance plan for people who want to retire early. How do I sign up?

The plan you heard about is called the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program. However, your employer must be signed up for it. The program allows you continue to receive the company's group health plan if you retire before 65, and the government reimburses your employer.

As of early October, about 3,000 businesses, local governments, non-profits and unions had applied and been accepted into the program, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program will expire on Jan. 1, 2014 when state-based health insurance exchanges are up and running. The exchanges will serve as one-stop shopping markets for consumers to compare and buy affordable medical insurance.

Some employers offer health benefits for early retirees on their own. But if your employer isn't among them and doesn't plan to participate in the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program, you can either purchase an individual health insurance policy or buy coverage through COBRA. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), you can continue your health benefits through your employer's group health insurance at your own expense for up to 18 months after leaving your job, assuming your company has 20 or more employees and you were eligible for the group health plan before you retired.

Finding affordable individual health insurance can be tough, especially if you have a pre-existing condition. Under health care reform, the federal government and states have set up a new program called the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan. You can find information about the program in your state through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, some states have their own long-standing programs for people who have difficulty getting coverage.

Learn more about health insurance options for early retirees, and see Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plans available.

Last updated: Nov. 8, 2010