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3 ways to save money on health insurance

It's open enrollment season, a short period of time when companies offer employees the opportunity to make changes to their health insurance and other benefits for the next year. In some cases, your choices this fall could potentially save you hundreds of dollars in 2015. But you have to take action and analyze your health benefits.

Nearly 150 million Americans are covered under employer-sponsored health plans. Still, many may spend far less time reviewing plan options than choosing a new place to vacation.

Workplace benefits can be complex and confusing to navigate. Yet, taking time to ensure that the plan you selected last year is still appropriate for you and your family can potentially save you hundreds of dollars. If you or your dependents have had a change in their health status, you need to consider the out-of-pocket costs and possibly change your plan.

Health care costs
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"Determine if you and any dependents on your plan are a high health-care user or low health-care user," said physician and certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. "Do you visit the doctor only if you're so sick you have to be taken by an ambulance or do you frequent your practitioner every time you get a cough? If you go to the doctor a lot or have a lot of prescriptions, then most likely a lower deductible plan (with higher premiums) is a better option for you. If you rarely go, then likely a high deductible plan (with lower premiums) will be the best option."

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Larger employers offer comparison tools, but if not, just add up the cost of the premiums and how much you typically paid out of pocket last year. McClanahan said the main question you need to answer if you choose a high deductible plan with lower premiums is if the savings from premiums this time around will be greater than what you paid out of pocket last year. It's a little gamble and hopefully you win most years, but you should also keep money on the side in case something bad happens."

Here are three strategies to help you save a little more on health-care costs:

1. Get a discount or bonus with health-care incentives.

Check if your employer is offering any incentives. "This is a great way to save money," said Tracy Watts, a Washington, D.C.-based senior partner at the global consulting firm Mercer. "If you go online and fill out health questionnaire, will you get a bonus in your pay? If you have a biometric screening or certify that you are a non-tobacco user, will you get a discount?"

There are also extra charges to keep in mind. Some employers have a spousal surcharge. So if your spouse has access through his or her employer and they choose not to take it and go on your insurance instead, your employer may charge you extra. Having separate plans could save you money.

2. Carry over $500 in a Flexible Spending Account to next year.

A Flexible Spending Account (FSA) allows you to contribute money from your paycheck to a special fund that can be used for eligible heath-care expenses. Your contributions are made pre-tax, which saves you money, and can be used for medical expenses and dependent care, including child-care costs. Some employees have been wary of FSAs since unused funds generally expire. But there's been a change to the "use it or lose it" rule: Many employers now offer the ability to carry over $500 of unused FSA money into the next year.


3. Put away money in a Health Savings Account for now, or later.

A Health Savings Account (HSA) is for people enrolled in high-deductible health plans. Contributions are also made pre-tax and what you don't use in a given year will carry over to the next plan year. You can even take your HSA with you when you change jobs. The maximum contribution in 2015 for an HSA is $3,350 for individuals and $6,650 for families. Catch-up contributions for those age 55 or older are $1,000.

You can have an HSA even if your employer doesn't offer one. The only caveat is that you must be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan. "If you've done that, anyone can open an account with a bank or broker. Plus it has a triple tax advantage," Watts said. You don't pay taxes on the money going into an HSA, funds grow on tax-deferred, and you can use the money tax-free to pay for qualified medical expenses.