(ARA) - Open enrollment is the time of year when employees have the opportunity to review and select their benefits package for the following year. It is especially important for employees to know their companies' open enrollment schedule, which typically takes place between September and December, because if they miss it, they might not be able to change their health benefits until the following year.

In making their benefits decisions, people typically don't spend very much time researching their options - one hour or less according to a survey for UnitedHealthcare, compared to 10 hours researching a new car.

"Consumers who don't take the time to review and understand their benefit options might be leaving a lot of money on the table," says UnitedHealthcare senior vice president Yasmine Winkler.

When choosing your benefits this open enrollment season, Winkler suggests the following tips that could help improve your health while also putting money back in your wallet:

1. Look for incentive-based wellness programs. Many companies are now offering wellness programs that reward employees for making healthy choices and being more personally engaged in improving their health. Incentive-based health plans may provide financial and other rewards for lowering your cholesterol, losing weight, or even signing up for a health coaching program or gym membership. Winkler cites UnitedHealthcare's Personal Rewards program - which is already nearing 1 million participants after being introduced just a year ago - as an example.

2. Open a Health Savings Account. More employers are offering health plans that include a Health Savings Account option. A Health Savings Account, or HSA, is like a personal bank account specifically for health-related expenses: you own all the money in it, including contributions from your employer. And, unlike a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), HSAs have no "use it or lose it" provision. They also offer a triple tax advantage: money is deposited pre-tax from your paycheck, accrues interest tax-free, and withdrawals are not taxed as long as funds are used for health-related expenses.

3. Get your preventive care. The new health reform law requires nongrandfathered health plans to cover preventive care with no cost sharing by the consumer. These services - which include children's immunizations, annual physicals, mammograms and colonoscopies - may help you stay healthy and increase your chances of detecting possible future health risks earlier on.

4. Compare treatment costs. Some health plans offer tools to estimate your health care costs. For example, UnitedHealthcare's Treatment Cost Estimator enables you to compare the estimated price of various medical treatments and services among different physicians. Some tools also enable you to compare the quality ratings among physicians who participate in your health plan's network, in addition to their cost.

5. Don't overlook other important benefits. Many employers offer a variety of supplemental or voluntary benefits that can also put money back in your wallet. Critical illness and disability plans are designed to protect your income and help pay bills in the event that you are out of work for extended periods of time due to illness. The average cost of these plans can cost as little as $7 per month while providing thousands - even tens of thousands - of dollars in coverage. In addition, dental and vision plans typically cost only about $1 per day combined but cover annual cleanings and eye exams, and offer reduced pricing on frames and lenses.

Many employers and health plans offer resources at no additional cost to help you navigate through this open enrollment period. One place to start is www.HealthCareLane.com, a free, easy-to-use website with fun, interactive videos that simply and clearly explain different kinds of health benefits programs and terminology. This year, don't miss the opportunity to review your benefits and save some money while taking steps toward better health.How to put money back in your pocket during open enrollment
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