Make the most of health plans before year-end


Last updated 12/18/2018 at 6:30am

Rebecca Madsen

Special to the Village News

The holiday season is at hand, and many California residents are already making year-end plans to travel and celebrate with friends and family. Yet there is one year-end plan that is often overlooked: taking steps to make the most of their health benefits. Doing so could help improve their health and save money.

Here are five health tips to consider before the end of the year.

Get ahead of health issues.

People with employer-sponsored, individual, Medicare and Medicaid plans have access to a slew of preventive services that can help detect diseases and encourage well-being. Take advantage of the various health screenings – such as blood pressure, cholesterol and depression – and timely vaccines, such as the flu shot, that are available through health plans before year-end. Doing so now may give residents a head start on those healthy New Year’s resolutions. Check with the health plan as many eligible preventive services are available at no additional cost, as long they are delivered by care providers in the plan’s network.

Delay non-emergency services.

A growing number of employers and consumers are choosing health plans with higher deductibles; in fact, nearly 45 percent of Americans are enrolled in such plans, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. If this applies, residents should check if they have reached or exceeded their deductible, which is the amount they have to pay before insurance kicks in. If not, it may make sense to delay non-emergency services, such as a joint replacement, until 2019. The cost for those services would apply to the 2019 deductible and out-of-pocket maximum, increasing the likelihood that the health plan would pay for more of the medical expenses for the remainder of the year.

Schedule recommended health services.

The opposite is true if someone has already reached their deductible. In this case, check with a health care professional to schedule recommended medical services, as those will likely be covered, all or in part, by the health plan. If possible, residents should tell the health care professional that they’ve reached the deductible and out-of-pocket maximum, and see if there’s any needed follow-up care that can be arranged before the end of the year.

Understand health spending accounts.

Many people have spending accounts with funds earmarked for health care services. Health savings accounts offer tax-advantages, and the money can roll over from year to year. If someone contributed money to their HSA before year-end, they can help pay for qualified medical services in 2019 or even later while lowering their taxable income for 2018. On the other hand, flexible spending accounts require the money be spent before the year ends, and unused balances are not rolled over into the next calendar year. So if someone has funds left in their FSA and they need to order contact lenses, schedule a dental cleaning or refill prescriptions, for example, now’s the time to do that.

Prepare to use 2019 benefits.

This year’s open-enrollment season is wrapping up. According to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey, more than 40 percent said they devoted less than one hour to the process, meaning they may not have explored some of the many options available to them. Before the year is out, residents should take time to review their health plan and check with their employer’s HR department to determine what well-being incentives or other resources might be available when 2019 starts. Nearly 75 percent of employers offer well-being programs, with an average incentive of $742 annually, according to a recent study by the National Business Group on Health. By finding out now what incentives are available, they can help prepare to start earning all or some of those rewards starting New Year’s Day.

Rebecca Madsen is chief consumer officer for UnitedHealthcare.


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