Your Finance: Monetizing health care benefits

Despite antitrust objections by the state attorney general, Despite antitrust objections by the state attorney general, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed a new law that will let Nassau Health Care Corp. collaborate with North Shore-LIJ Health System on certain functions. Photo Credit: iStock

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If you have been waiting years for a decent raise, you will probably have to keep waiting -- the average salary increase in the United States planned for 2014 will be only 2.9 percent, according to a Towers Watson survey. And rather than being shared equally, that raise will be aimed disproportionately at workplace stars.

This is all the more reason not to leave money on the table when selecting your employee health care benefits for 2014, something most workers are doing right about now.

Here is how to approach open enrollment season for 2014.

Learn to live with high deductibles. Employers are increasingly embracing "consumer-driven" health plans, which require patients to share health care costs via high deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance.

Workers who choose a high-deductible plan will save on monthly premiums. The plans also come with companion health care savings accounts (HSAs) that allow you to accumulate pretax money that can be used to meet those out-of-pocket costs.

Families that have high health care costs every year -- lots of kids and chronic conditions, for example -- will still probably do better with a higher-premium, lower-deductible plan that limits out-of-pocket costs. It may not save them money over the year, but it will allow them to better predict and budget for their health care expenses.

Workers who can afford to save money in an HSA and pay their health care costs separately can use that account to accumulate money for retirement health care -- and never pay taxes on the money earned in the account. That makes it a better deal than a 401(k) or an individual retirement account, which simply defers taxes instead of eliminating them.

Split up your family coverage. More companies are cutting back on the subsidies they offer adult dependents, so you can expect to pay more to keep your spouse or adult child in your plan. Compare how much it would cost to keep your family all in one plan, with how much it would cost for everyone to obtain coverage individually, either from their own employer or via the public or private health care exchanges.

Make sure you are capturing your company's whole 401(k) match. For the first time in 20 years, employers are increasing the amount they will contribute to employee 401(k) plans, according to Aon Hewitt.

Make sure you are signed up to contribute at least as much as the company will match in 2014.

Use a flexible spending account. These allow you to set aside as much as $2,500 in pretax income for health care costs.

Lurking somewhere in your company's benefits website are some extra perks: Cash back for joining a gym, matching charitable contributions and more. Take the time to fill out the forms and grab that cash. A few hundred here and a few hundred there, and pretty soon, it's almost like a real raise.

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