The season of changing leaves, pilgrimages to the apple orchard, cozy sweaters—and employee benefits open enrollment.
That’s right—in addition to sipping pumpkin spice lattes, fall is also prime time to focus on the fine print of your benefits package.
Every company’s open enrollment dates differ, but if you’re self-employed or planning to cover your own health insurance in 2016, you’ve got exactly one month from today to review your benefits needs before the government-backed Health Care Marketplace begins its open enrollment period on November 1.
And while a month may seem like a generous amount of time to get organized, it can fly by if you procrastinate—especially if you’re feeling confused (if not downright overwhelmed) by your choices.
Truth is, some 40% of employees don’t fully understand the benefits options offered to them, according to a survey by ADP.
And with health premiums expected to rise even for employer-sponsored plans in 2016, it’s more important than ever to do your homework.
To help get you started—and flag common costly missteps people tend to make—we asked benefits pros to highlight the key questions you should be asking yourself in the lead-up to open enrollment.
1. What Can I Do to Help Ensure I’m Picking the Best Health Plan for my Needs?
At first glance, what may seem like the best plan—because it has a lower monthly premium, for example—could end up actually costing you more money, thanks to copays, increased prescription costs, and other fees that can add up fast.
And since out-of-pocket costs are expected to rise in 2016, as more and more employers try to shift the health care burden onto employees, it pays to take the time to review your health insurance options with a fine-toothed comb.
So make it a point to compare and contrast premiums, deductibles, in- and out-of-network doctors, copays, and any other out-of-pocket costs for all your plan options.
Then set up a one-on-one with your benefits representative to help you figure out what makes the most sense for you financially—and wellness-wise.
Jennifer Benz, founder and CEO of employee benefits consulting firm Benz Communications, notes that if you tend to have a lot of doctor visits, or don’t have enough cash on hand to cover the cost of the full deductible, then you may want to consider a more traditional, low-deductible plan.
But if you don’t get sick very often, and can afford to pay the full deductible at once, “high-deductible plans may be a better deal, especially if they come with a health savings account—yet many people don’t consider them,” Benz says.
Once you’ve chosen your policy, ask your benefits person if there are any rarely used perks you should know about.
One such benefit is to consider using a company’s preferred online pharmacy, which can save you money if it’s offered. “Typically, you may get a three-month supply for only two months’ copay,” Benz says.
2. Can You Help Me Find More Ways to Save?
Think of this as a catchall question that can help you learn about any other cost-saving benefits that your company offers beyond what’s part of your healthcare plan.
For example, one commonly underused perk, Benz says, is “employee stock purchase programs that are basically a discounted way to buy company stock.”
Employers also sometimes offer discounts on their own products and services, discounted event tickets, and even group rates on auto or homeowner’s insurance.
3. How Can I Go About Maximizing My Retirement Savings?
But not all employees take advantage of these plans, or if they do, they don’t always take the time to look into whether their company offers a matching program. So take the time this benefits season to ask about a match, as well as check the amount you’re contributing—and whether you should adjust your percentage.
For example, some companies automatically enroll employees at a default contribution rate, such as 3%.
Although that’s a great starting point, simply sticking with a preset percentage makes it easy to go into “inertia mode,” says Julie Stich, director of research at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. “Three percent isn’t some magic number that will [take care of all your retirement needs]. If you can contribute more, you should consider doing so.”
And if your employer matches some of your contributions, it’s usually a good idea to try and take advantage of the entire company match, if possible.
At any point, don’t be afraid to ask your benefits administrator for more guidance.
For instance, if you’re unsure about the various mutual fund options available through your 401(k), your benefits rep may be able to put you in touch with such resources as financial planners who work at the company that manages your 401(k).
4. Are There Any Programs That Can Help Me With Personal Issues?
At bigger companies—and even smaller ones with comprehensive benefits—chances are there’s a benefits program available that can help you navigate some of the challenges you’re dealing with in your personal life, Benz says.
Struggling to get a good night’s sleep? More and more companies are offering programs to help their employees manage insomnia and stress relief.
Need help with your aging parents? Some companies have relationships with eldercare advisers who can help you find assisted living facilities and deal with insurance issues.
Stressing and losing sleep over debt? Check to see if your company offers resources to help you consolidate your debt.
5. Should I Revisit My Benefits Now That I’ve Had a Major Life Change?
Whether it’s tying the knot, having a baby, getting a divorce, or even nabbing a raise, a change in your financial situation can change what’s best for your benefits.
Beyond just checking to see if you can add a new baby or spouse to your insurance, there may be other options you can take advantage of, such as special childcare programs for new parents.
If you are recently divorced, you may want to update the beneficiaries on your work-related retirement accounts or life insurance policies. And if you’ve scored a nice raise, it may be a good time to update your retirement account contribution amounts.
Bottom line: Use open enrollment season to make sure your health insurance and other benefits match your life as it is today—or will be very soon.
6. What’s the Smartest Way to Take Advantage of FSAs and HSAs?
A Flexible Spending Account (FSA) is a pre-tax savings account that allows you to sock away money to cover deductibles, dental visits, and other out-of-pocket costs.
But there are rules about what the money can be used for and when you can use it, says Stich. And since FSAs run from January to December, it can be easy to accidentally forfeit unused cash—even though some companies do offer a grace period or allow you to roll over $500 to the next year.
A Health Savings Account (HSA) is also a medical savings account—but it’s only available to people enrolled in high-deductible insurance plans. HSA contributions can be made with pre-tax income or they can be tax deductible and roll over to the next year. In fact, many people keep these accounts for years—sometimes even into retirement.
So talk to your benefits rep about how best to use these accounts, says Stich, as well as learn the rules of your plan—and follow them religiously to make the most of every last cent of your savings.
7. What Expenses Does the Company Cover?
Your boss has probably told you whether you can be reimbursed for client dinners, but there are likely a number of other perks that your boss might not think to mention.
Case in point: Your employer may be willing to cover professional development courses or workshops, taxis when you pull a late night at the office, and even moving expenses if you have to relocate from another state to take the job.
Some employers even “do things like provide laundry, dry cleaning, or grocery services on-site,” Stich says. “And some provide banking or postal services in the office, tapping into a whole ‘convenience benefit’ category.”
8. What Benefits Election Mistakes Do People Often Make That They Regret Later?
The all-too-common mistake with the biggest potential impact: missing your open enrollment deadline.
“If you don’t make changes to your plan by the drop-dead date,” Stich says, “you may be out of luck.”
Another common faux pas: Employees forget to talk to their spouses about their own employee benefits changes for the next calendar year before making their elections. For example, it may be worth it to join your spouse’s health insurance plan as a dependent, rather than keep a separate plan through your employer.
One other thing to keep in mind is that benefits people are human, too, and they can make mistakes, says Stich, so be sure to review all of your paychecks and benefits documents for errors.
Photo of raised hand courtesy of Shutterstock.