It pays to shop around for health-care plans

Tips for a healthier, wealthier 2015
Tips for a healthier, wealthier 2015   

If you've spent more time examining holiday sales ads than your open enrollment insurance materials, you're not alone.

A new survey from Aflac found that last year, 41 percent of employees spent less than 15 minutes researching benefits options during their employers' enrollment window—compared with an average two hours deciding which TV to buy. That can be a costly mistake.

Unless you're buying a top-of-the-line $4,000 set, health care is going to be the pricier financial decision. This year, the average worker paid out $4,823 in premiums, 3 percent more than in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And experts say more increases are in store for the coming year, so the plan you choose can make a big difference to your bottom line.

"This is a year where employers are making a lot of changes," said Beth Umland, director of research for health and benefits at Mercer, an HR consulting firm. "If you're ever going to read your open enrollment materials, this is the year to do it."

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Health Care insurance options in California.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images
Health Care insurance options in California.

Not only can consumers expect to see more premium and deductible increases, but they may also see more low-premium, high-deductible plans (often called consumer-driven health plans). There may also be surcharges for coverage of a spouse and more incentives for healthy behaviors.

Those trends mean it's smart to use open enrollment to reassesseven if you like your current plan, said Craig Rosenberg, practice leader for health and welfare benefits administration at Aon Hewitt. You might find one that's less expensive or a better fit for your health-care needs.

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"Don't buy on price alone," said Rosenberg. "You may find that the plan that costs you the least to purchase ends up costing you the most, with your health-care needs." Instead, assess how you used your plan this year, and look at how the premiums, deductibles and other costs of the plan offerings add up.

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Families might find that the best value requires each spouse to find coverage through their respective employers, instead of signing on for one family plan. Employers often cover a lower percentage of health-care premiums for families than they do for individuals, and some are adding on surcharges to cover a spouse who has access to health-care elsewhere, said Tracy Watts, national health-care reform leader for Mercer. The median surcharge is $100 per month.

Don't forget to look at other voluntary benefits. Experts say open enrollment might be your only chance to opt in for employer-sponsored disability insurance, or, if you're looking at one of the high-deductible plans, hospital indemnity coverage to help cover costs if you unexpectedly end up in the emergency room.