Bone up on health plan options

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There's nothing more important than your health.

It sounds like something a parent would say. But, now, many employers seem to be just as concerned.

This fall during open enrollment, the period when workers can re-elect or pick new company benefits, you may find several changes in health-plan options, all stressing healthier lifestyles--and fewer costly claims.

"Companies want to get employees more involved in managing their health care," said Scott Ziemba, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt, a human resources consulting firm.

He added: "Healthy employees equate to lower costs."

Though health-care premiums typically aren't rising at double-digit rates this year, the growth still outpaces increases in salaries and inflation, according to a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit group that surveys employers annually.

So get ready to pore over your company's health insurance summary. You're likely to come across some new wrinkles:-- More wellness programs

If you're hankering to lose a few pounds before the winter holidays or you want to stop smoking, your boss may lend a hand.

According to a survey to be released by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health, a non-profit organization made up of large companies, 46 percent of employers now offer financial incentives, such as a discounted gym membership, if you participate in wellness and fitness programs.

An additional 26 percent said they plan to do so in 2008.

Keep in mind that discounts and other financial incentives may not be available under each health plan your employer offers, so be sure to read your options carefully.

And along with carrots, some employers are also penalizing workers for what are deemed unhealthy habits, such as smoking.

In fact, check the "smoker" box during open enrollment and your employer may charge you an additional $50 or more in monthly premiums, according to Ziemba. Not fair? Sign up for a cessation program and some employers will waive the surcharge.

-- The rise of high-deductible plans

Another twist your employer may introduce is a high-deductible health plan, or HDHP. With an HDHP, you pay for health costs--at least $1,100 for single workers, $2,200 for families--before insurance kicks in, using money that either you or your employer (or both) put into a savings account.

HDHPs are not widely available yet. Only 10 percent of firms that provide health benefits offer a HDHP, according to the Kaiser study. But the number is growing.

If you opt for an HDHP, you may pay less in premiums. On average, single employees pay $522 a year, compared with $704 under traditional plans.

Still, you'll have to budget for those upfront, out-of-pocket costs.

Many HDHPs cover preventative care, such as annual exams, for free. But if you visit the doctor beyond that, it'll cost you.

Even with employer contributions to a savings account, you're typically going to be responsible for about half the deductible or more.

-- More help

Need help weeding through the options? Some employers are providing guidance.

When signing up for benefits, online tools may be available to help you compare costs between plans or to project your health-care expenses for the next year.

On top of that, about one-fourth of large employers have set up clinics at the office, according to the Watson Wyatt/NBGH survey. At the clinic, you can receive treatment for common ailments for free or at a discount.

Also, 44 percent of companies now offer employees access to a "health coach," someone you can call with medical or health-plan questions.

"There's a lot of information being thrown at employees today as far as how to be good health consumers," Ziemba said. "They should take advantage of whatever help is available."

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at yourmoney@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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