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The Color of Money

Don’t treat your open-enrollment letter like junk mail

Thank goodness the election is over because there is another election to focus on now.

This time of year, your employer gives you an opportunity to make changes to your workplace benefits for next year. Yes, it’s open enrollment season again.

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Can I be honest? I’ve been trifling in the past about open enrollment. At times I’ve waited until the night before the deadline to review my benefits. Or I just forgot. Usually, I just went with what I already had. But I could have made some costly mistakes.

Fifty-six percent of 2,500 employees surveyed for Aflac estimated they waste up to $750 annually because of their errors during open enrollment. Participants said they elected the wrong insurance coverage or took benefit options they didn’t need. Take heed from their mistakes:

 Sixty-one percent said they are only sometimes or not at all aware of changes in their insurance each year.

 Eighty-nine percent default to the same options every year.

 Only 16 percent contribute the right amount to flexible spending accounts.

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If you can’t focus on the dizzying amount of information, you are not alone. A survey by Aetna found that workers rank choosing health care benefits as the second-most-difficult major life decision, behind saving for retirement — because the information they get is confusing and complicated, there are conflicting data, and it’s hard to determine which plan is right.

But don’t treat your open enrollment package like junk mail. Open it. Or go online and read through the materials. You will probably find tools to help you compare health care costs, insurance plans, or other benefits. Even if you don’t plan any changes, review everything. Health insurance that has worked for you in the past may have undergone major changes.

You have to do some math. It’s a pain. But you may have a Cadillac health plan when you need Chevy coverage. Add up yearly medical expenses so you can elect the right coverage. Aetna found that 43 percent in its survey rarely or never track out-of-pocket health care spending.

In the Aflac survey, half of employees said they would feel more informed if they sat down with an insurance consultant. If you fit in this group, go to the open enrollment meeting at your place of work.

Aetna has some additional tips:

 List your current and future health care needs. Include medications and any planned surgeries or health care procedures.

 Review any problems you had with previous benefit plans. This is a good time to try to learn more about coverage you wish you had in the past. One reason I’ll probably stick with my current provider is the company added my regular health facility to its centers designated for urgent care. If my children get sick after hours, I don’t have to drive as far as in the past.

 Don’t just focus on premiums. Take note of out-of-pocket expenses such as copayments and deductibles.

 Pay attention to deadlines so you don’t have to rush to make a decision.

Don’t be trifling. Not when costs are going up.

Michelle Singletary writes for The Washington Post.

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