Open enrollment is underway. Here are some tips to maximize your benefits post-Covid

  • Open enrollment runs through December for many employers.
  • This year, as a result of the pandemic, there are some new offerings aimed at mental, physical and financial health.

Open enrollment season is underway.

With millions of employees reevaluating their job or considering a change, employer-sponsored benefits are an even greater consideration heading into 2022.

About 157 million Americans rely on employer-sponsored health insurance coverage and yet, before the Covid-19 pandemic, many people spent very little time reviewing their workplace health-care plan during the open enrollment period.

Now, amid the ongoing public health crisis, more people are feeling the financial and mental toll after over a year of working from home. And they're taking a harder look at what their employer is offering in the way of support.

Typically, open enrollment runs through early December. This year, it will run through January 15, 2022 in most states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, although workers should still sign up by Dec. 15 if they want coverage to take effect on Jan. 1. 

Here are a few things to look out for before then:

1. Health insurance

For starters, consider what your health coverage costs you now that premiums and deductibles are changing.

Annual family premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance — the amount it costs each year for insurance, often divided into 12 monthly payments — will be about 3% lower in 2022, after factoring in subsidies enacted under the American Rescue Plan Act, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, more workers have a deductible — the amount you pay before insurance kicks in — and that deductible is rising. In 2020, the average single deductible was $1,945, roughly twice what it was a decade ago.

"If you are shopping for a plan, the obvious thing is the premium, but what people really should be focused on is the total out of pocket," said Lisa Lough, the president of individual and family plans at Cigna.

"Think about how you are going to consume health care," she said. "If you are just going to go in for physicals or if you have chronic conditions, don't just look at the price tag on the premium but your deductible before your health-care plan starts to cover costs."

2. Health savings accounts

One way to help with health-care costs is to use tax-advantaged accounts for medical expenses — specifically, health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts.

In both cases, you use pre-tax money to cover out-of-pocket expenses, including doctor visits and prescription drugs.

To be able to use an HSA, you need to be enrolled in what's called a high-deductible health plan, or HDHP. Contributions then grow on a tax-free basis, and any money you don't use can be rolled over year to year.

For 2022, employees and employers can contribute a total of up to $3,650 for individual coverage and up to $7,300 for family coverage.

Check to see if your employer offers a flat contribution or matching funds and aim to max out those contributions for the year, said TIAA's Chief Financial Planning Strategist Dan Keady.

"Almost everybody can go out there and find some savings or missed benefits."

Further, HSA savers who have the means should invest at least a portion of their money to keep pace with or beat health-care inflation, Keady said. 

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Health FSAs have lower contribution limits — $2,750 for 2021, but you also don't need to have a high-deductible plan in order to be eligible — in fact, you don't need health coverage at all to sign up for one.

There are also dependent care FSAs, which allow employees to pay for eligible childcare expenses using funds on a pre-tax basis.

The American Rescue Plan increased 2021 dependent-care FSA limits to $10,500 from $5,000. While companies don't have to adopt the new FSA limits, employees should be proactive about asking about it in order to maximize whatever childcare assistance is available.

Generally, you must use the money by year-end or you lose it, although legislation signed into law late last year could also allow you to roll over any unused funds from 2021 to 2022 for use at any time next year, if your company has opted in.

3. Life insurance

Nearly 45% of U.S. workers don't have or don't know if they have life insurance, according to a survey by employee benefits provider Unum.

But Americans are now much more interested in these policies because of the Covid pandemic.

Even if you do have a life insurance policy through work, it could be a fraction of what you need to protect young children or other dependents.

Employer-issued life insurance policies typically amount to a year's worth of salary, often less.

Consider what's the right amount for you and your family, then weigh whether you want to buy additional coverage, or supplemental insurance, through your workplace group plan or shop for your own individual term life insurance policy, a move many advisors recommend.

4. Disability insurance

Disability insurance is often the most overlooked employee benefit. These plans can help replace a portion of your paycheck if you get sick or injured and are unable to work.

There are two basic kinds: Short-term disability generally replaces 60% to 70% of your base salary and premiums are often paid by your employer. Long-term disability, which ordinarily kicks in after three months to six months, typically replaces 40% to 60% of your income.

More than 55% of adults don't protect their income with disability insurance, Unum found. Seven out of 10 baby boomers also forgo this kind of coverage, despite being more likely to need it. 

If your employer offers something, you should consider it, Keady said.

5. Wellness resources

Before the coronavirus crisis, Americans rarely turned to their company for help dealing with work-life stressors and personal issues.

But, whether it is a response to the pandemic or the threat of losing employees during the Great Resignation, there is a bevy of financial wellness benefits now being offered by companies.

This year, 46% of employers in Bank of America's Workplace Benefits Report said they are offering the programs, compared to 40% in 2020. The financial firm surveyed a national sample of 1,363 full-time employees.

Some of the wellness initiatives available this year include financial coaching, stress management classes, web-based resources for healthy living and even discounts on gym equipment.

There could also be tuition assistance, student loan repayment programs, backup child care, tutoring services for older children and stipends for enrichment programs and camps, which can go a long way towards improving long-term wellbeing.

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