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Tips and tools to save money this open enrollment season for health insurance

(BPT) - The leaves are changing colors, children are back in school, and football rules the weekends once again. But don't forget another annual fall tradition - benefits open enrollment....

(BPT) - The leaves are changing colors, children are back in school, and football rules the weekends once again. But don't forget another annual fall tradition - benefits open enrollment. This is the time of year when millions of employees across the country have a chance to review their benefits provided by their employer and decide what programs to enroll in or change for the following year.

As open enrollment season draws near, it is important to understand your health insurance options, as it's one of the biggest benefits provided by your employer. Most companies typically set aside a two-week period between September and December for open enrollment. So be prepared, because if you miss this window of opportunity you likely cannot enroll in or change your health coverage until next fall.

“When reviewing their health coverage options, 50 percent of people spend only an hour or less reviewing their choices,” says Rebecca Madsen, senior vice president of UnitedHealthcare. “But in many cases, consumers who spend quality time reviewing their health plan options can find ways to save money - whether it's through selecting a plan that better fits their expected health costs in the coming year, making sure their doctors are in their insurer's care provider network or evaluating prescription drug coverage.”

Madsen suggests the following tips and tools to help prepare for open enrollment:

Three tips to help consumers select the best health plan:

1. Set aside enough time to review your health insurance options. It's important to review each of the health insurance plans that your employer offers. Remember that there's more to each plan than co-pays and premiums. For example, some plans offer vision exam coverage and different prescription drug coverage, while others may offer wellness programs that can lead to discounts on your premiums. Also keep in mind that health reform has changed insurance coverage in recent years. As part of the new law, children under age 26 can be enrolled as dependents on their parent's plan, and many preventive care services, such as children's immunizations or mammograms, are typically covered by health plans at no cost to you.

2. Make sure your doctor is in-network - it can save you money on out-of-pocket costs. Even if you don't plan to make any changes to your health insurance this year, it's always good to ensure that any doctor you see regularly - or plan to visit in the coming year - is in your plan's care provider network. If you plan to visit a doctor or hospital outside of the network, be sure to understand how your costs will differ from an in-network care provider.

3. Look for incentive-based wellness programs. Many companies are promoting wellness programs that reward employees for making healthy choices and being more engaged in their own health. These plans could save up to $1,000 or more on annual premiums. Incentive-based programs, such as UnitedHealthcare's Personal Rewards, provide financial rewards for things such as meeting specific cholesterol or body mass index targets, or even signing up for a telephonic or online health coaching program.

Three health tools designed to help consumers learn more about their health benefits and save money:

1. Use a health care cost calculator or estimator. Health cost calculators enable you to estimate the prices of medical treatments and services between different physicians and hospitals. For example, UnitedHealthcare's myHealthcare Cost Estimator provides a retail-like “comparison shopping” experience for more than 300 procedures and services by revealing side-by-side quality and estimated cost information for doctors and hospitals. Using a planning tool is particularly important if you are expecting any significant health events in the next year, such as having a baby or undergoing surgery.

2. Take advantage of mobile apps and online tools to engage in your own health. Many health insurers have created apps and Web-based tools to help people locate a doctor, review claims, ask questions about their benefits and find more information about their health plans. For example, UnitedHealthcare's Health4Me mobile app helps plan participants easily find physicians, compare treatment costs, check the status of a claim or speak directly with a nurse for medical information at no additional cost.

3. Use reliable online resources for a “Health Care 101" lesson. Many people don't understand terms like co-pay and deductible, so it can be especially challenging to understand what a formulary is or how a Flexible Spending Account differs from a Health Savings Account. UnitedHealthcare's UHC.tv is an online educational resource where anyone can watch short videos on a variety of health insurance and wellness topics. Some videos include comedic skits as well as national health personalities. Similarly, HealthCareLane.com is a virtual community that explains a variety of different health benefits and wellness-related topics while interacting with the townspeople, such as shopkeepers along Main Street or entertainers at the community Wellness Fair.

Consumers usually have more than one option when it comes to choosing a health insurance plan, so it is important to fully understand your options and choose the plan that is best for you and your family. This year, don't miss any opportunities to save some money while taking steps toward better health.

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