Health Insurance Moves to Make Before the New Year


A new year, new rules and maybe even a new health care system. What does it mean for world-weary consumers, especially before year-end?

In a word, it means change — and it could be coming fast. That’s because health care spending continues to rise. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health care spending in the year 2007 increased 6.1% to $2.2 trillion. That’s about $7,421 per person, and it’s also 16.2% of the nation’s gross domestic product.

In 2003, U.S. health care spending only amounted to 15.3%. The HHS also says that consumer health care spending — measured by private health care premium payments — is rising by 6% annually, while out-of-pocket spending increases by 3.3% every year.

That rounds out to a 9.3% rate of growth for U.S. health consumers annually, and that is an unsustainable number. That’s also why health care reform is top priority in Washington these days.

But reform or no reform, you don’t have to take things lying down. Here’s a checklist of things you can do to maximize your health care insurance before Dec. 31 — and before any big health care reform kicks in.

Get checked out now. Even if there is no reform, health care prices will likely rise anyway. Private insurers regularly raise rates from year to year, so take advantage of your current health care plan’s pricing right now and schedule that check-up for 2009.

Check your HSA. Health savings accounts, in their current form, likely won’t survive the health care reform that Congress has in mind. So if you have money saved in an HSA or a flexible savings account, use it or risk losing it. Even if Congress takes a pass on health care reform, you can’t roll HSA funds over into a new year.

Take advantage of freebies. While you’re doing your holiday shopping, don’t pass one of those free mall kiosks where you can get a flu shot, blood screening or other type of free medical care. It saves you cash, gets you in and out quickly, and you benefit from some preventative medical care. Rand Corporation estimates that such service can save medical care consumers up to 40% in costs you’d accumulate by going to the doctor’s office. Target (Stock Quote: TGT) and Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) are especially big on offering “retail” health care services.

Lose your job? Ask for a “discount” now. If you’ve lost your job, and your health insurance has run out, go to your family doctor and ask to lock in a discount. Again, there’s no telling what Washington will do with health care reform, so locking in a deal now could save you big trouble down the road. Note – if you offer to pay cash, many doctors, looking to bypass the Byzantine health care insurance payment structure, will likely go along with the deal.

Let your fingers do the walking. OK, this tip really doesn’t have an expiration date but it could be too good to pass up. If you’re suffering from a minor medical malady, like a sinus infection or a common cold, you can save money by using one of the growing number of online medical care providers that offer access to a physician either online or over the phone. TelaDoc is a good example. For a registration fee of $35 and a small monthly fee, you can get good, sound medical advice on small bore medical issues without the high cost of an office visit.

Let’s face it. The health care landscape is changing and it’s likely changing fast. Act now to get your ducks in a row, and you’ll be better off when the health care chips hit the fan.

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