Tips to help navigate health benefits open enrollment amid COVID-19

(BPT) - The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted people nationwide to live differently, including new challenges when it comes to navigating the health system and accessing care.

Whether people are enrolling in a health plan offered through an employer, state-based exchange or government-sponsored program such as Medicare or Medicaid, this fall’s open-enrollment season for health benefits will likely be different than in the past. In fact, a recent UnitedHealthcare survey found that 44% of respondents expect COVID-19 to influence the health plan they intend to select, including 16% opting for an option with lower out-of-pocket costs and 10% selecting more comprehensive coverage.

In most cases, the practice of gathering with coworkers or benefits consultants in a conference room to review health plan options may have been postponed. Even before COVID-19, technology was likely reshaping how people selected health benefits and obtained care, improving access to information and creating a more seamless and interactive health care experience. To help simplify the health care experience, promote well-being and potentially save money, here are five tips people may consider during open enrollment and year-round.

Focus on health care literacy: According to the survey, more than 78% of Americans say they are prepared for open enrollment, yet previous CDC research has shown that some people struggle to fully understand common health care terms and concepts, including plan premium, deductible and co-insurance. In fact, a recent UnitedHealth Group study concluded that improving health literacy could prevent nearly 1 million hospital visits and save over $25 billion a year. People may help improve “health care literacy” by accessing public resources such as JustPlainClear.com, which provides definitions for thousands of common health care terms in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Tap into technology: Given COVID-19 may have changed how and where people obtain health care services, it may be important to select a health plan that includes coverage for virtual care, ideally including options for telehealth visits with your own doctor and 24/7 access to a national provider network. In fact, the use of virtual care resources has surged more than 10-fold compared to 2019, according to a 2020 UnitedHealthcare internal analysis, enabling some people to connect with a health care provider via a smartphone, tablet or personal computer. Telehealth resources are designed to be a more convenient way to visit with a doctor about various health issues, ranging from urgent and routine care, ongoing chronic condition management, behavioral health and specialty care such as oral and eye health.

Watch out for wearables: Smartwatches and activity trackers are potential resources to help promote well-being and monitor various health measures, including daily steps, sleep patterns and blood sugar levels. Some health plans offer programs that may enable people to earn financial incentives for using wearables, such as fitness trackers to monitor daily steps or continuous glucose monitors to help members with type 2 diabetes. Other virtual programs may give people access to personalized, interactive online weight loss and exercise support. Using connected devices, it is possible to access near real-time data to help people modify daily behaviors and help care providers make more evidence-based recommendations.

Comparison shop for care: Health care quality and cost may vary widely within a city or neighborhood, even though there may often be little or no corresponding improvement in health outcomes performed by higher-priced care providers, according to a Families USA report, “Price Transparency in Health Care.” Given that, more than half (56%) of Americans said they have used the internet or mobile apps during the last year to comparison shop for health care. While recent national efforts have helped spur greater transparency around hospital prices, people may find more specific — and personalized — estimates through their health plan. In addition, there are public websites that enable people to access market averages for hundreds of health care costs, providing baseline estimates to help inform the research process.

Bundle benefits: While many people may focus on medical coverage during open enrollment, it may be important that people not overlook specialty benefits such as vision, dental, hearing and accident protection. In fact, the recent survey found that 84% of employees said having access to specialty benefits is “important.” Plus, people who combine medical coverage with specialty benefits through a single health care company may be able to benefit from services including clinical resources, which may help flag gaps in care, and preventive medical services, such as annual eye exams or teeth cleanings. That’s according to a recent UnitedHealthcare analysis of customers with integrated medical and specialty benefits.

“COVID-19 continues to reshape many aspects of our lives, including how people research health plan options and access medical care,” said Rebecca Madsen, chief consumer officer of UnitedHealthcare. “By considering these tips, people may make more informed decisions related to health care coverage and access, while promoting well-being and helping prevent disease before it starts.”

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