Prepare to Pay More for Health Insurance in 2010

Last Updated Sep 16, 2009 10:33 PM EDT

Forget health care reform. If you really want to know what will affect your health related dollars in 2010 -- and you're lucky enough to have employer-sponsored insurance -- you're better off paying attention to the materials your human resources department hands out during open enrollment season. (Most firms do this in the Fall.) Inside the package, your company will outline the various plan options for next year and any changes -- read price hikes -- you can expect with your existing coverage. Unfortunately, it looks like you could be in for some unwelcome news.

Here are the changes many employees will see when they open their 2010 health insurance packages, according to Watson Wyatt, a benefits consulting firm:

First, employers plan to ask their workers to cough up more money for out-of-pocket expenses, including premiums, deductibles ($50 - $100 or more per person) and copayments (an extra $5 per visit).

Second -- and here's some good news -- companies hope to save money by encouraging their workers to take better care of themselves. More employers are offering gift cards, cash and premium discounts for employees (and even some spouses) who participate in smoking cessation, weight management and fitness programs, as well as health risk assessments.

Third, employers plan to scale back the number of plans you can choose from and add a consumer-directed health plan option. For some of us, this could mean we will have to find new doctors or pay more when we go out of network.

Fourth, some firms are starting to introduce new prescription plans that will give the patient more of an incentive to discuss medication options with their doctors. With the new consumer-directed drug plans, some remedies will be covered entirely if they make it onto a preventive medication list. And other value-based programs will include $0 copays for therapies known to lower costs and reduce hospitalizations. (Sounds great at first glance, I just wonder how much these plans will charge for other meds.)

The last major change is where the news could get ugly for some families. According to Watson Wyatt, companies plan to take a stricter approach when offering family health coverage. Some things to look out for include surcharges for spouses who could get insurance through their own employers and audits that search for covered dependents who shouldn't be on the firms' plan . (I'll have more on how these changes will affect families in Friday's blog post.)

The reality is that families have no choice but to accept what their employers offer them. But what you can do if your company offers you a choice of plans is carefully evaluate those options. Typically, one will provide some kind of cost savings versus another that gives you more freedom to choose your own doctors. You'll, of course, have to figure out which one is best for your needs.

Families should also take advantage of a flexible spending account (FSA) if it's offered. An FSA allows you to use pre-tax dollars to pay for out-of-pocket costs, including over-the-counter medications, copayments and your deductible.

Then, if you do choose a health plan that allows you to see any doctor you want, try to stick with providers who are in your insurer's networks.

How will you try to save money on health care next year? Please share your thoughts with me.

Lubbock Heart Hospital image by Brykmantra, CC 2.0.