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Five ways to put health care dollars back in your pocket

Open enrollment is the time of year when most Colorado employees can review and select their benefits package for the following year. It is especially important for employees to know their companies' open enrollment schedule, which typically takes place between September and December, because if they miss it, they might not be able to change their health benefits until the following year.

In Colorado, an estimated 2.7 million people, or approximately 55 percent of the state's population, receive health coverage through an employer-sponsored plan, which means thousands of state residents will be filing through paperwork or reviewing online materials over the next several weeks.

Unfortunately, many consumers spend only one hour or less reviewing their available options, according to a recent national opinion survey by UnitedHealthcare. By comparison, consumers spend an average of 10 hours researching a new car and five hours researching a mortgage.

People who don't take the time to review and understand their benefit options might be leaving a lot of money on the table. To avoid that, here are some tips that could help improve your health and save some money:

1. Look for incentive-based wellness programs. Many companies are now offering wellness programs that reward employees for making healthy choices and being more personally engaged in improving their health. Incentive-based health plans may provide financial and other rewards for lowering your cholesterol, losing weight, or even signing up for a health coaching program or gym membership. About 77 percent of US companies are currently offering wellness programs, and at least a third offer financial incentives or are planning to introduce them.

2. Open a Health Savings Account. More employers are offering health plans that include a Health Savings Account option. A Health Savings Account, or HSA, is like a personal bank account specifically for health-related expenses: you own all the money in it, including contributions from your employer. And, unlike a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), HSAs have no "use it or lose it" provision. They also offer a triple tax advantage: money is deposited pre-tax from your paycheck, accrues interest tax-free, and withdrawals are not taxed as long as funds are used for health-related expenses.

3. Get your preventive care. The new health reform law requires non-grandfathered health plans to cover preventive care with no cost-sharing by the consumer. These services - which include children's immunizations, annual physicals, mammograms and colonoscopies - may help you stay healthy and increase your chances of detecting possible future health risks earlier on.

4. Compare treatment costs. Some health plans offer tools to estimate your health care costs. For example, UnitedHealthcare's Treatment Cost Estimator enables you to compare the estimated price of various medical treatments and services among different physicians. Some tools also enable people to compare the quality ratings among physicians who participate in your health plan's network, in addition to their cost.

5. Don't overlook other important benefits. Many employers offer a variety of supplemental or voluntary benefits that can also put money back in your wallet. Critical illness and disability plans are designed to protect your income and help pay bills in the event that you are out of work for extended periods of time due to illness. The average cost of these plans can cost as little as $7/month while providing thousands - even tens of thousands - of dollars in coverage. In addition, dental and vision plans typically cost only about $1/day combined but cover annual cleanings and eye exams, and offer reduced pricing on frames and lenses.

This year, don't miss the opportunity to review your benefits and save some money while taking steps toward better health.

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Christopher Stanley

Christopher Stanley, MD, MBA, is the senior medical director for UnitedHealthcare's Rocky Mountain Region. His responsibilities range from patient care, staff supervision and physician relations. Dr. Stanley's focus is to enhance the delivery of high-quality, efficient health care for UnitedHealthcare's members, both inside and outside the hospital.

He previously served as director of medical science liaisons for Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Stanley is also a board-certified pediatrician who practiced medicine for more than nine years in Germany and Denver.

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