Make the most of a health plan before year-end

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Author Rebecca Madsen. Courtesy photo

The holiday season is at hand, and many residents in California are already making year-end plans to travel and celebrate with friends and family. Yet there is one year-end plan that people often overlook: taking steps to make the most of their health benefits. Doing so could help improve their health and save them 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 many 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 the health plan before year-end. Doing so now may give them 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% of Americans are enrolled in such plans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If this situation applies, people 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 2020. The cost for those services would apply to the 2020 deductible and out-of-pocket maximum, increasing the likelihood that the health plan would pay for more medical expenses for the remainder of the year.

Schedule recommended health services.

The opposite is true for people who have already reached their deductible. In this case, check with a health care professional to schedule recommended medical services, as those will likely be covered completely or in part by the health plan. If possible, they should tell the health care professional that they’ve reached their 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 they contribute money to their HSA before year-end,  they can help pay for qualified medical services in 2020 or even later while lowering their taxable income for 2019. 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 your 2020 benefits.

This year’s open-enrollment season is wrapping up. According to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey, more than one-third or 36% of Americans 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, take time to review available health plans and check with an employer’s HR department to determine what well-being incentives or other resources might be available when 2020 starts. Nearly 75% of employers offer well-being programs, with an average incentive of $762 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 the chief consumer officer with UnitedHealthcare.