By Carolyn Bigda
(MCT)—If you have employer-provided health insurance, you don’t have to worry about meeting the March 31 deadline to sign up for coverage through the state-based health care exchanges. But like any consumer today, you may be wondering how to lower your health care costs.
One way: Take advantage of the growing number of health and wellness programs being offered by employers—often with financial rewards attached.
Health and wellness programs can take many forms, from weight-loss initiatives to on-site flu shots. And in 2014, nearly three-fourths of employers will offer workers a financial bonus for participating in these programs, according to a study released this year by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. That’s up from 57 percent five years ago.
The size of the rewards also is growing. On average, corporations plan to dole out $594 per employee for wellness incentives this year, up from $260 in 2009.
“There’s a strong belief that these programs help drive healthier behaviors,” says Robert Kennedy, health and welfare practice leader for Fidelity Benefits Consulting. But, he added, “The financial incentives are what grab people’s attention and make them take action.”
In a survey released last month by Aon Hewitt, a global human resources consulting firm, consumers named financial rewards as one of the most appealing features of wellness programs, more so than other features, such as convenience and access to personal advice.
If you haven’t already investigated the type of rewards your employer offers, it’s worth doing so.
Many employers will discount your monthly health insurance premium when you participate in a wellness program. Gift cards and cash also are common rewards. Or an employer may put money in a flexible spending or health savings account, which are tax-advantaged savings accounts for medical expenses.
How do you earn those financial bonuses?
In the past, simply doing a health risk assessment (essentially, a questionnaire about your health and fitness level) was enough to earn you a payout. Now, some employers are demanding more. Rewards may be tied to outcomes or the completion of more than one healthy activity during the year.
And some companies will penalize you for bad behavior. If you’re a smoker, for example, and don’t participate in a smoking cessation program, you may have to pay higher insurance premiums than nonsmoking colleagues.
“Ultimately, employers want their workforce to be healthier,” says Ray Baumruk, employee research leader for Aon Hewitt.
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