Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

Time to elect a health-care plan

Wilfredo Lee/AP - Aetna has some tips to help during open enrollment for health-care benefits.

Thank goodness the election is over because there is another election you need to focus on now.

This time of year, your employer gives you an opportunity to make changes to your workplace benefits next year. Yes, it’s open-enrollment season again.

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Can I be honest with you?

I’ve been trifling in the past when it comes to open enrollment. There have been times when I waited until the night before the deadline to review my benefit information. Or life got in the way and I just forgot to review my choices. Usually, I just went with what I already had, which is good. But I could have made some costly mistakes.

Fifty-six percent of employees estimate they waste up to $750 annually because of their errors during open enrollment, according to a survey of 2,500 consumers conducted for insurance provider Aflac. Participants said they elected the wrong level of insurance coverage or took benefit options they didn’t need.

Take heed from the mistakes the Aflac survey found:

●Sixty-one percent of those polled said they are only sometimes or not at all aware of changes to their insurance policies each year.

●Eighty-nine percent default to the same options every year.

●Only 16 percent contribute the right amount to flexible spending accounts.

If you can’t focus on the dizzying amount of information, I understand. You are not alone. A health survey by Aetna found that workers rank choosing health-care benefits as the second most difficult major life decision behind saving for retirement. Further, survey respondents said that choosing health-care benefits is more difficult than purchasing a car, making decisions about medical tests or treatments, parenting and selecting other forms of insurance.

So why do we dread it so much?

Overwhelmingly, employees said they found decisions on their health-care benefits to be difficult because the information they are given is confusing and complicated, there is conflicting data and it’s hard to determine which plan is the right for them, according to the Aetna survey.

First — and this may sound obvious — don’t treat your open enrollment package like junk mail. Open it. Or go online and read through the materials provided by your employer. You will likely find tools to help you compare health-care costs, insurance plans or other benefits. Even if you aren’t planning to make any changes to your choices, look at everything that is being offered. The health insurance plan that has worked for you in the past may have undergone some major changes or service deletions. How do you know if you’ve got the best plan for you or your family if you don’t know what else is being offered?

You have to do some math. I know. It’s a pain. But you may have a Cadillac health insurance plan when you only need Chevy coverage. Take some time to add up your yearly medical expenses so you can elect the right coverage for your needs. Aetna found that 43 percent of its survey participants rarely or never track how much they spend on out-of-pocket health-care costs.

Maybe self-help isn’t best for you. Some people are comfortable reviewing materials on their own. But in the Aflac survey, half of employees said they would feel more informed if they sat down with an insurance consultant during enrollment. If you fit within this group, go to the open enrollment meeting at your place of work.

Aetna has some additional tips to help during open enrollment. Go to www.planforyourhealth.com and look for “(Benefits) Decisions 2012: Top 10 Tips.” Here are a few of the tips, pulled together by Wendy Shanahan-Richards, co-author of “Navigating Your Health Benefits for Dummies” and national medical director for Aetna:

●Make a list of your current and future health-care needs. Include prescription medications or any planned surgeries or health-care procedures for the upcoming year.

●Review any problems you had with previous benefits plans. This is a good time to try to learn more about coverage you wish you had in the past. One of the reasons I’ll probably stick with my current provider is because the company added my regular health facility to its list of centers designated to handle urgent-care problems. If my children get sick after-hours, I don’t have to drive as far as I’ve had to in the past.

●Don’t just focus on the plan premiums. Take note of out-of-pocket expenses such as co-payments, deductibles and any additional charges.

●Pay attention to your open enrollment deadlines so you don’t have to rush to make a decision for your elections.

Don’t be trifling. Not now. Not when health-care costs are going up and your money is so stretched.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

 
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