Health care open enrollment around the corner

Originally printed in the Appleton Post Crescent, October 5, 2010. By Pete Bach.

APPLETON — Annual insurance re-enrollment periods are just around the corner for most employer-sponsored health insurance plans. And guess what? You'll probably have to kick in more of your paycheck to maintain the same level of coverage.

The re-enrollment period affords a fixed block of time, usually 10 days or two weeks, in which workers can elect to choose new plans or modify terms of old ones.

"There's lots of trade offs employers can make to maintain health benefits when costs are going up," said Paul Frontsin, director of the health research program for the non-profit Benefit Research Institute.

In 2010, covered workers contributed a greater share of the total premium coverage than in previous years, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation found the most increase among small companies (three to 100 workers), where 46 percent, or nearly half, are enrolled in high deductible plans, up from 16 percent in 2006.

High deductible plans — take, for example coverage through a preferred provider organization or PPO costing $1,250 annually for individual coverage, $2,500 for a family plan and both for in-network services — aren't unusual.

What is changing is covered workers are contributing a greater share of the total premium.

Mary Felton, president of HR Business Partners, Appleton, an independent human resources specialist who assists Fox Valley companies with HR needs, said medical costs are trending 11 percent higher this year. On top of that, she said, one has to figure another 3-to 5 percent increase for the Obama health care reform on top of that. Some terms of that reform took effect last week, she said.

"Employers continue to look for ways to mitigate the increases in cost," she said. "Some are adding high deductible plans. Wellness programs have always been somewhat popular but what we're seeing more of is incentives for people to participate."

For instance, non smokers might get a cost break on their share of the premium, she said.

UnitedHealthcare Insurance Co., Minnetonka, Minn., said the national dialogue on health care has spurred more Americans to review their benefits more closely this fall.

The company, which boasts the highest market share (11.2 percent) for health and accident insurance sold in Wisconsin, called open enrollment season "a great learning opportunity."

"But that learning opportunity must be a two-way street," Austin Pittman, UnitedHealthcare's chief growth officer, said in a statement. "Just as we encourage people to closely examine their health benefits and ask questions, it's also important that employees and insurers communicate clearly about the different options that are available. Consumers who better understand their health care options make better health decisions, which can lead to better personal health and well-being."