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Open enrollment: Saving money and getting buff

People across the country are starting their annual human resources meetings to pick out health care plan options for next year. The task can be daunting. While you wade through the differences between an EPO and PPO, make sure to check out what your company offers for wellness incentives. You might be surprised.

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According to the Associated Press:

Most large employers now offer wellness programs designed to keep employees healthy and, ultimately, cut medical expenses. These programs often come with financial perks to increase participation. More than 81 percent of businesses with 50 or more employees offer at least one wellness benefit, such as gym memberships, quit-smoking programs, and stress management classes, according to the Wellness Council of America, an insurance industry group.

These companies are trying to curb health insurance costs that have climbed more than 25 percent over the last five years, outpacing inflation.

For several years now, many companies have offered cash or gift certificates to encourage employees to participate in their programs. Some still do, but low participation rates have prompted an increasing number to offer insurance cost breaks instead.

For instance, employees enrolled in UnitedHealth’s personal rewards program can cut their premiums by $1,000 per year for meeting basic health benchmarks for cholesterol, blood pressure, and other measures.

"The two-pronged trend here is that there is more money on the table, but at the same time you have to do more to get it," says Ian Duncan, actuary and professor of Actuarial Statistics at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In some cases employees must provide evidence they are filling important prescriptions, or attending exercise classes before they can claim the financial reward.

Meanwhile, other employers are trying an opposite strategy by assessing penalties on those who have health risk factors. Eleven percent of large employers require employees with unhealthy habits like smoking to complete classes to avoid higher premiums, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Experts say such carrot and stick approaches will likely increase in the years ahead. Under President Obama’s health care overhaul, employers can increase the value of such penalties to as much as 30 percent of workers’ total premiums.

Does your company take part in plans like these? Have you benefited from wellness incentives in your company's health care plan? Think they're a good idea? Discuss your health care questions in the comments section.

To help you make your decisions, we created a guide to some of the jargon you'll encounter in those health care decision packets. Learn more about flexible spending, preventative care, and co-pays.


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