Give your health benefits a workout! A simple guide to open enrollment

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Just as the fall means investing in a good coat, it also means dealing with open enrollment for your employee health plan. It's a necessary hassle: choosing the benefits and plan you'll be locked into for the next year is as important as doing your taxes. A recent Harvard study found that nearly half of Americans who file for bankruptcy do so because of medical bills. So give your health benefits the same scrutiny you'd give your taxes, and consider this simple guide your "good accountant" for common health-care concerns.

1. Think about all your health needs in the coming year, and those of your parents and/or children. Do you need a regular mammogram, either because of your age or family history? If you're thinking of getting pregnant, do you want a plan that covers in vitro fertilization?

You may not like facing the big questions, but young people in particular tend to be unprepared for disaster and enormous medical bills -- such as my friend who broke his hip in a car accident while working long, exhausting hours on an independent film. It's smart at any age to get short-term disability insurance, so money is still coming in if you can't work.

As Americans are finding they have to stay in the workforce longer, aging parents need all the help they can get. Consider a plan that will help you support your parents' medical needs, letting you take time off from work or get reimbursed for certain coverage assistance.

2. Know your provider. Most major health-care insurers let you search their sites for doctors and dentists without needing a login, which gives some sense of their customer service and lets you see which doctors are in the network -- always the cheaper option, even if you have a relatively flexible PPO. Then search the internet for advice and reviews on the care providers.

3) Flexible spending. That's the golden rule: if your company offers a flexible spending account, as 85 percent of companies with at least 500 employees do, then go for it. FSAs let you use pre-tax dollars to pay for qualifying medical expenses, which can save you up to 20 percent on common expenses including insurance co-payments and deductibles. You choose how much to set aside for the year; the amount is deducted from your paycheck.

Try to spend it all by the end of the year -- you'll forfeit whatever you set aside for your FSA that you don't use. One way to unload that spare FSA account is to visit your drugstore. Prescriptions and many over-the-counter drugs, and first-aid items, are covered. Another option: FSAs cover Christian Science practitioners and acupuncturists too, according to IRS guidelines. Be sure your company abides by those guidelines; some firms impose limitations to avoid the paperwork. Your company, not the IRS, will have the most accurate list of what's covered under your plan.

4) Perks! The average person spends $4,000 for health benefits at a company. That's a lot, but there are breaks that can lighten that load, such as gym-membership discounts (or even home equipment -- but find out for sure before you buy a treadmill).

Many insurers also offer complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies to cover massage, accupuncture, and other holistic methods of relaxation. So once you're done doing your homework on health benefits, you can reward yourself with a massage, recharge, and get back in the jungle.

5) The more you know, the less people can take advantage of you. Don't be afraid to ask your human-resources department all the questions you need to understand this stuff. That's what they're there for. And don't let up until you fully understand it, and they're explaining it in clear, simple terms. When it comes time to fighting any bunk charges or getting reimbursed on an expensive vaccine, you'll be happy you did.
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