Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Many Important Health Insurance Choices Must Be Made Now in Georgia

PRNewswire/ -- For employees who work for companies that offer health insurance benefits through late November/early December, this is usually the time when important health plan decisions must be made for the upcoming year - 2011. Interestingly, studies show consumers typically spend more time researching car and computer purchases than they do when selecting a health insurance plan. These studies also indicate that most people spend an hour or less reviewing their insurance plan options and often default to the plan they had the previous year.

With health care reform changes in the mix, the comprehensive long-term impact is still uncertain. Nevertheless, employees must make educated and well-thought-out decisions for their 2011 benefits now, using the information that is currently available to them. Equally important, employers must do everything they can to provide their employees with the information necessary to make an informed decision. And, since open enrollment season is upon us, this is the best time to share tips to help employees navigate through the choices they must make.

Many of Georgia's companies offer more than one health insurance plan option, which typically have different costs to the employees, both in the amount deducted from their paychecks and the total cost of the coverage for deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance during the course of the year. In addition, many employers are offering base coverage plans and then offer a 'buy up' plan option where employees can purchase additional coverage not covered by the employer.

"It's a mistake not to review your health plan options each year and carefully weigh which plan will be the best fit for you and your family," said Morgan Kendrick, President, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia (BCBSGa) who noted that often consumers choose the plan that has the least impact on their paycheck when that option may not be the best choice overall.

Plans with higher monthly premiums and lower co-pays and deductibles might be best for those who anticipate using a lot of health care services throughout the course of the year. On the other hand, young and healthy employees without kids might save more with a plan that features low premiums and a high deductible.

We encourage employers to provide their employees with the tools and resources needed to help them make informed decisions about their health care coverage. Below are a few things employers can do to make this process easier:

1. Encourage Healthy Behaviors. Research shows that approximately 85 percent of ill health comes from poor health choices. Therefore, open enrollment provides a great opportunity for the promotion of health and wellness programs and incentives, including smoking cessation or weight management courses, gym subsidies, etc. Not only will this help contain company costs long-term, it also helps employees feel and perform better.
2. Hold open enrollment meetings. If possible, make them mandatory, but make them fun and interactive. Bring in an account manager from your insurance carrier or have an onsite benefits manager/HR representative explain the various health care options and answer questions on-the-spot.
3. Avoid acronyms when communicating with employees. Use simple terms and definitions, and communicate early and often. An Institute of Medicine report showed that nearly half of all U.S. adults have difficulty understanding healthcare benefits information. As a result, the materials go unread and plan selections are made haphazardly.
4. Help Familiarize Employees with Consumer-Driven Health Plans (CDHPs). CDHPs continue to gain popularity because they help employers and employees control health care costs. CDHPs provide you with health account options to help you pay for the costs of health care such as Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRAs). Companies that are the most successful in introducing and migrating to CDHPs take time to explain these plans to employees up front, which usually results in higher adoption rates.

Here are some items employees should keep in mind when choosing a health insurance plan:

1. Do your homework and take advantage of the tools offered to you. If your company holds open enrollment meetings, attend at least one and be prepared with questions. Take the information home and review the details in a more relaxed environment. Make sure to follow up with your company benefits advisor if you have additional questions – that's what the benefits advisor is there for.
2. Understand and learn what basic health insurance terms mean. Use online tools provided by your current health plan or other tools such as as a reference. For example, make sure you can answer the following:
-What is the difference between co-payment and co-insurance?
-What does deductible mean and how could it impact your out-of-pocket costs?
-What does it mean to seek "out-of-network" services?
3. Examine your family's past health care spending. An excellent way to determine a good plan fit for 2010 is to understand what health care services your family used in 2010 and take into consideration what expenses may occur in the coming year—like having a child or if you will have to deal with a chronic health condition like diabetes.
4. Before continuing on your current plan, read the details. What you signed up for last year may have changed. Have the co-pays and deductibles increased? Often employers will adjust these levels as a result of the increasing cost of health care services. Pay attention to the details in order to avoid surprises down the line.
5. Verify in advance that your physician and hospital are part of the network for the plan you are choosing. This is especially important if the insurance company is changing or if you are switching to a different health plan.
6. Take advantage of your HSA, HRA or Flexible Spending Account (FSA) if appropriate. Make sure you understand the difference between an HSA, HIA, HRA and an FSA, as well as any changes in access to these funds, for example, FSA accounts have new prescription requirements surrounding over-the-counter medications.

"In the past, consumers may have quickly looked over their benefit options and made a selection without seriously considering the comprehensive financial impact it could have on them and their family," said Kendrick. "But this year, with the additional economic pressures consumers are facing and new health care reform mandates, it makes sense to really study all plan options in order to make the best choice to meet their needs."

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