6 ways to save money during open enrollment

Health cost headlines, stethoscope and rising graph iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) Open enrollment season is approaching for many U.S. employees, and it's a good use of your time to learn what choices you can make that will help save you hundreds, or even thousands of dollars regarding your health-care expenses. The money you save can then be invested for retirement in a Health Savings Account(HSA), making this a win-win activity.

I recently spoke with Rebecca Madsen, senior vice president at UnitedHealthcare, who observes, "Many people spend more time buying a car or planning their next vacation than analyzing their choices in open enrollment." Funny, but I say the same thing about the time spent planning for your retirement.

Madsen went on to share three ways you might save money by making wise choices during the upcoming open enrollment season:

- Spend time reviewing the health care plans offered by your employer. You can reduce your premiums significantly by signing up for high deductible plans, which may be a good idea if you typically enjoy good health.
- Make sure your doctors are in the network offered by the plan you're considering. The doctors in the network can change from year to year, and if your doctor drops out of the network, you could be spending more on doctor visits by visiting someone outside of the network.
- Participate in incentive-based wellness programs. Some plans are offering up to $1,000 in savings if you meet certain health metrics, such as healthy levels in your body mass index (BMI), blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure readings. UnitedHealthcare has enrolled 1.7 million participants in this type of wellness program.

Madsen also described three tools you can use to analyze your health care choices and costs:

- Health care cost calculators compare the costs of different physicians and hospitals. These can forecast your health-care costs based on the conditions for which you need treatment. This is particularly important if you're expecting to undertake significant medical events during the year.
- Mobile applications and online tools can help you locate doctors, connect with nurses, review claims, and learn more about your health care plan.
- Online "Health Care 101" resources demystify medical lingo and provide short video clips on wellness.

Madsen says that UnitedHealthcare offers programs to help you design a personal wellness program, given your particular situation and health conditions, and set up milestones and progress reports to help you reach your health-care goals. And UnitedHealthcare isn't alone in trying to help employees improve their health; other insurance carriers offer similar features, so be sure to check out the provisions in the health-care plans offered by your employer.

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The money you can save during 2013 by implementing some of these suggestions is just tip of the iceberg; if you take steps now to improve your health, you could be saving much more in future years by avoiding costly medical expenses. And you'll most likely enjoy life more and live longer. It's time well spent -- what more could you want?

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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