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Jill on Money: Make informed decisions during health care open enrollment

It's that time of year, when you are confronted by open enrollment nudges from your employer. To make informed decisions, you will need to spend some time and consider any changes that have cropped up in your life and in your employer's plan.

Employer health insurance coverage: For 153 million Americans, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that this year annual premiums reached $7,188 for single coverage and $20,576 for family health coverage. That's up 4% and 5% respectively from the previous year, higher than the 2% general rate of inflation. While the headline numbers are eye-popping, you probably care more about your contribution.

The numbers are smaller, but the increases are significant. The average annual dollar amounts contributed by covered employees for 2019 are $1,242 for single and $6,015 for families, a whopping 25% jump since 2014, and 71% since 2009.

Of course it doesn't stop there. The dreaded deductible can add up to significant additional outlays toward the cost of health care. The average deductible among covered workers with a deductible is $1,655, up 36% over the past five years and 100% over the past 10 years.

So what can you do? Shop around. Yes, it's tedious, but it could save money. Start by reviewing your current plan and what you spent this past year; then try to project what your health care costs will be in the year ahead.

Compare plans and determine what they cover, how much they cost, including copays and deductibles, and whether your doctors are in the network.

High Deductible Health Plan/Health Savings Account: High Deductible Health Plans offer lower premiums and are paired with tax-advantaged Health Savings Accounts. Both allow you to set aside pre-tax money to pay for unreimbursed health care costs. If you're generally healthy and want to save for future health care expenses, the HDHP/HSA may be an attractive choice. Or if you're near retirement, it may make sense because the money in the HSA can be used to offset costs of medical care after retirement.

However, if you think you might need expensive medical care in the next year and would find it hard to meet a high deductible, it might not be your best option. The IRS has specific contribution and deduction rules about HSA contribution limits, so be sure to check them out.

Flexible Spending Accounts allow you to set aside a projected $2,700 in pretax dollars (2020 limits have not yet been announced as of this writing) to pay unreimbursed medical expenses. These plans are subject to a "use-it-or-lose it" provision, which means that employees often must incur eligible expenses by the end of the plan year or forfeit any unspent amounts. Employers may, if they choose, allow you to carry over up to $500 of unused FSA funds to the next plan year.

Insurance coverage: The buying power of a big group can mean more affordable rates for life, disability and long-term care insurance. Many of these policies are portable, which means that you can take them with you, if you leave the company.

Paying off student loans: According to the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management survey, employer-provided student loan repayment as a benefit has doubled since 2018, from 4% to 8%.

Reimbursement for continuing education: This valuable benefit is tougher to find, but some employers still help pay for undergraduate, graduate and certificate classes. There is usually a requirement that workers earn at least a "B" to qualify for reimbursement.

Jill Schlesinger, CFP, is a CBS News business analyst. A former options trader and CIO of an investment advisory firm, she welcomes comments and questions at askjill@jillonmoney.com. Check her website at jillonmoney.com.

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