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Health insurance gets yearly checkup

September 27, 2007

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It's almost that time again - open enrollment season. If you're fortunate enough to work for an employer who provides a benefits package, you've got some decisions to make soon.

Those of us who have choices to make during open enrollment should feel blessed. A decrease in employer-based health insurance has contributed to a rise in the number of uninsured. The percentage of people covered by on-the-job insurance decreased to 59.7 percent in 2006 from 60.2 percent in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest figures.

The Census Bureau reported last month that the number of people without health coverage increased to 47 million from 44.8 million during that period.

So for those of us who will receive a benefits packet, what can we expect this year?

Well, in an effort to cut costs, your employer may be offering financial incentives or penalties for certain healthy or unhealthy behaviors, according to Watson Wyatt, a consulting firm that works with large employers on their open enrollment programs.

Pay special attention when you get your benefits packet because your employer may have expanded or changed what was offered during open enrollment last year, said Tom Billet, a senior consultant with Watson Wyatt.

Here are some of the major trends that Wyatt has identified for this year:

¢ More companies are offering financial incentives to employees who don't smoke or maintain a healthy weight or who agree to participate in some kind of wellness and fitness program. A survey by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) found that 46 percent of employers currently offer economic incentives and another 26 percent plan to do so in 2008. For example, starting in 2009, Clarian Health Partners of Indianapolis plans to give employees a discount on their health-insurance premiums for, among other things, not being overweight.

Some companies have decided to penalize workers for unhealthy choices, such as smoking, by charging them higher health insurance premiums. The extra cost for lighting up ranges from $50 to $100 a month, Billet said.

¢ Look for more coverage of preventive medical care. Wyatt found fully paid benefits often include reimbursement for vaccinations, exams and screenings for early diagnosis of breast, colon and cervical cancer. Many employers also provide coverage or partial reimbursement for blood pressure, cholesterol checkups and flu shots.

¢ A growing number of employers will be offering workers access to experts called "health coaches," according to another survey by Watson Wyatt and NBGH. A health coach might give an employee advice on how to better manage a chronic illness, such as asthma or diabetes.

Wyatt and NBGH found that 44 percent of large employers offer health coaches and another 13 percent plan to offer them next year.

¢ You may be able to get more than the traditional coverage through your employer. Some plans now offer workers a chance to get homeowners and automobile insurance, and discounts on other services such as massage therapy or chiropractic care.

¢ Finally, as health-care premiums rise, employers are paying closer attention to the people their employees report as dependents. An increasing number of employers are conducting eligibility audits and asking workers to provide proof that those dependents they enroll in the health plan are considered legal dependents.

Employers who have conducted such audits typically find between 5 percent and 7 percent of dependents enrolled in a plan should not be covered, Billet said.

When you get your benefits package, look through the paperwork to see if you are required to send a letter verifying the status of your dependents. Ignore the letter or forget to fill it out and you could lose your benefits.

I know open enrollment can be a pain. Carefully review all your options. It may feel like you don't have much money left after you select your options, but be thankful you have the choice.

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