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Open enrollment is coming: Here's how you can prepare.

If you’re among the millions of U.S. employees eligible for employer benefits, get ready. Annual open enrollment — the opportunity to sign up or make changes to your employee benefits package — is just around the corner. For some employers, open enrollment may already be in progress.

Here’s what you need to know now to help you stay informed as you prepare to make enrollment decisions that best meet your needs and your budget.

When is open enrollment?

Open enrollment usually occurs in the fall and lasts for a few weeks. It’s the period when eligible employees can enroll in or make changes to benefits available through their employer, such as health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance and other voluntary benefits. Check with your company’s human resources department for the exact dates of your employer’s open enrollment period.

Other than a qualifying life event like a change in marital, dependent or job status, open enrollment is usually the only time of year you’re allowed to make changes to your annual employee benefits. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re choosing the best options for your needs for the upcoming year.

How to prepare for open enrollment

“One of the first steps you can take is to pay attention to open enrollment announcements and information from your employer,” says Michelle Peters, Total Rewards senior analyst, Commerce Bank. Some companies host annual enrollment fairs or share information about benefits options that can be reviewed in advance of the actual open enrollment period.

Brian Denno, Manager, Total Rewards benefit programs, Commerce Bank, adds that it’s also a good idea to review your current benefits package. “Look at how often you went to the doctor this year, how much you spent on healthcare, and whether or not you met your deductible, he suggests.”

Also consider any health or relationship changes. Does your family have a new dependent, a child who needs braces or a covered spouse who needs knee surgery? While you can’t plan for everything, having an idea of what you’ve spent in the past year and what’s coming up, can help guide your selections.

How to choose your healthcare benefits during open enrollment

For most eligible employees, health insurance — including medical, pharmacy, vision and dental — is the biggest part of their benefits package in terms of cost and protection. Keep in mind that some benefits may be paid for by the employer, while others may be employee-paid through salary deferral.

“Review each plan carefully, one at a time, and consider how it may or may not meet your needs,” says Peters. In particular, pay attention to these factors:

Cost. Compare the total cost of each plan offered. Are premiums, deductibles, copays or co-insurance changing? Keep in mind that a plan with a high deductible will likely have a lower premium and vice versa. Pre-tax paycheck deductions to pay for employee benefits can lower your overall taxable income, but it’s important to consider the impact of your benefit selections on your take-home pay and overall budget.

Coverage. Are there changes in providers, medication lists or services compared to your current coverage? “Your benefits may be the same as last year but it’s a good idea to look up your current providers to confirm their network status before making your selection,” says Peters. She adds that using in-network providers and services will typically help you get the most value from your plan.

Health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible savings accounts (FSAs). Many employers offer these options to help offset the cost of health care. Employees can set aside pre-tax deductions from their paycheck to pay for eligible medical expenses. You need to be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) to be eligible for an HSA, but not for an FSA. You can learn more about HSAs and FSAs.

Other options. If both you and your spouse or significant other have employers that offer health insurance, compare benefits to see if it makes more sense for you to stay on your own plans — or for both of you to be on the same plan.

Denno encourages employees to use open enrollment season as an opportunity to look at their complete benefits package as it relates to their finances and budget. “It’s a good time to review everything, such as your employer retirement plan contributions, beneficiary information and even your paycheck withholdings,” he adds.

Don’t overlook these voluntary employer benefits

Your employer may also offer additional benefits that can help keep you healthy, save for retirement and offer other protections.

  • Life insurance and disability insurance. Many employers cover a set amount but give employees the option to purchase more.
  • Retirement. If you’re already participating in your employer retirement plan, review your contributions and allocations and adjust as needed. If you’re not, start contributing enough to take advantage of any employer match.
  • Wellness programs and additional benefits. Many employers offer perks to help you stay fit, reduce stress and save money in other areas. These can include no- or low-cost fitness wearables, gym reimbursement, lifestyle coaching, identity theft monitoring, childcare or commuter benefits — even tuition reimbursement and pet insurance.

Open enrollment: Other factors to consider

“Pay attention to deadlines so you can review and submit your selections on time, and be sure to save a copy of your selections,” says Peters. She also recommends checking your pay stub after your new benefits start to make sure that the deductions look correct.

Taking time to review your coverages and costs carefully can help ensure you’re choosing the best options for your needs for the coming year. If you have questions about enrollment or need additional information, Peters and Denno recommend reaching out to your benefits manager.

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