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Use Open Enrollment to Maximize Health Benefits

4 tips to help you get the most out of your health insurance

Woman lifting weights, Chatzky: Open Enrollment

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Are you getting all the health benefits you deserve? Take care that you do during the open enrollment period.

Are you paying too much for your portion of employer-sponsored health insurance? Or missing out on other valuable health benefits? All too often the answer to both questions is yes. Here are a few things to keep in mind during this open enrollment period.

Open and read your mail

Otherwise, you may default into one plan when you'd rather have another, cautions Amy Gordon, an employment attorney in Chicago: "Open enrollment can open and close and leave you with elections you didn't intend."

Look beyond the deductible. Deductibles tend to be the priciest insurance component, so that's where people focus, says Justin Sydnor, assistant professor of risk management at the University of Wisconsin.

Consumers (older ones, in particular) spend too much on premiums just to lower the deductible — and lose money as a result. Instead, do the math. Then look at the difference between the yearly premium and the deductible. If the two numbers are close, consider choosing the higher-deductible policy. Otherwise, you're paying premiums upfront for money you won't necessarily save later.

Don't assume your employer's plan is your best option

Explore your state health exchange to see if you can beat your employer's deal (go to to find it). If you've been getting coverage through your spouse's employer, look out for "spousal surcharges" — fees employers are layering on for putting your significant other on your plan. It may be cheaper for each of you to get coverage from your own employer — or for one of you to shop via an exchange.

Check out wellness benefits

Joining a gym? Quitting smoking? There may be some money in it. According to a survey by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments, 74 percent of employers now offer wellness-based incentives averaging $600 per employee. Keep an eye out for these.

Consider an HSA catch-up contribution

For those of you in high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts attached, those HSAs allow you to contribute more if you're of a certain age. You have to be 55-plus, but then you can kick in an extra $1,000. Contributions are tax-deductible, and the money grows tax-free. Payments for qualified medical expenses are free of taxes, too.

Jean Chatzky, best-selling author, journalist and money editor at NBC's Today, is AARP's financial ambassador.
—With additional reporting by Kelly Hultgren