Make the most of your health insurance choices

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People throughout Colorado are facing or preparing for open enrollment, when most Americans select or switch their health insurance plan for the next year. In Colorado, employees are reviewing and selecting their benefits package for 2014.

In many cases, consumers who spend time reviewing their options can find ways to save money on their health care costs — whether it’s through selecting a plan that will cover more of their expected health costs for a major event in the coming year (such as having a baby or surgery), reviewing which doctors participate in the health plan’s care provider network, or evaluating prescription drug coverage.

Unfortunately, 14 percent of Americans understand basic insurance concepts such as deductible, copay, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximum, according to a recent study in the Journal of Health Economics.

In addition, beginning this fall, some people in Colorado will go through a new process by selecting coverage through the state’s health insurance exchange, known as Connect for Health Colorado. A component of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), it’s designed to give people, especially lower-income individuals and families who may qualify for federal subsidy assistance, another resource to purchase health insurance.

It’s important to pay attention to open-enrollment dates and be aware of tips that may save you money. There are three distinct open-enrollment periods this year:

Employer-provided coverage — Usually fall season, specific dates depend on the employer. About 157 million Americans receive employer-provided health benefits, so their open-enrollment process will likely stay the same. Large employers and some small employers typically schedule a two- to three-week period when employees can select health benefits for the following year.

Medicare open enrollment — Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. For most, the Open Enrollment Period is their only opportunity all year to make changes to their Medicare coverage. Beneficiaries can choose to switch to a new Medicare Advantage or Part D prescription drug plan during the Open Enrollment Period.

Health Insurance Exchanges — Oct. 1 through March 31. An insurance exchange may be good for people eligible to receive a government subsidy that lowers monthly premiums. In general, subsidies are available to individuals who meet household income requirements and who aren’t eligible for certain government insurance (such as Medicaid) or do not have access to affordable coverage through their employer.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of open enrollment:

Ask about wellness programs: Check with your employer or health plan about wellness programs that reward you for making healthy choices. Some health insurers, including UnitedHealthcare, offer incentive-based wellness programs that provide financial rewards for completing health assessments, lowering your cholesterol, losing weight or even signing up for a health coaching program.

Add important ancillary benefits: Many employers offer a variety of ancillary benefits to help people save money and improve their health. Dental and vision plans typically cost about $1 a day combined, but cover annual cleanings and eye exams, as well as offer reduced pricing on frames and lenses. Research shows a connection between oral health and overall health, so adding a dental plan could help prevent larger medical problems.

Research cost of hearing aids: Some plans now offer financial assistance, a good trend for the 38 million Americans with hearing loss. In some cases, plans can provide deep discounts on hearing aids, offering savings of up to 60 percent or more compared to similar devices sold retail.

For help navigating open enrollment, UnitedHealthcare offers online educational resources such as UHC.tv and HealthCareLane.com that include a variety of entertaining videos to help people learn about health insurance topics and how to live healthier and happier.

Dr. Robert F. Beauchamp is senior medical director, UnitedHealthcare Colorado.