Selecting benefits and insurance products that make sense for you

By Carol Harnett, President, Council for Disability Awareness

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in Carol Harnett’s employee benefits column for Human Resource Executive.

You don’t know me, but I’m someone people have come to trust when they want to have a conversation about employee benefits. I stand to neither gain nor lose anything based on the choices you will make during your annual benefits enrollment period. Except for this: Based upon my life experiences, I’d like to see you make the best choices you can.

It’s challenging for your employer to provide you with the types of suggestions I’m going to make. This is largely based on the fact your human resource leaders can’t give you direct advice.

There is one key assessment I believe is important to make when choosing your benefits, and that is how to understand risk.

I spent the first 10 years of my career training elite athletes who “sneer at risk.” They push themselves to the edge of what their bodies can do and return every day to do that again and again – even after experiencing major injuries. They, their significant others or their parents also go to considerable expense to make certain they receive the best training, medical care and rehabilitation available.

The rest of my career has revolved around how to get people to the best quality healthcare – both to treat and prevent injuries, illnesses, accidents, temporary and permanent disabilities, and more minor health conditions such as pregnancies, bad backs and torn-up knees. As a result, I’ve developed a contact list of medical specialists who make a difference in helping people recover in a way that, sometimes, makes a life-altering difference.

Here’s one of the things that’s been frustrating the heck out of me the last few years. I’ll receive a phone call from a friend or acquaintance seeking a referral to a physician or healthcare provider. Very often I know someone who could help them – and here’s where the “but” comes in. This person can’t see this individual because they selected a health plan that limited their provider and medical center choices. At the time, it seemed like a good call. Limited network –and high-deductible – plans are more affordable.

I’d suggest that the first question you need to answer when assessing your health plan benefit selection is, if you or your loved ones needed to see the best healthcare provider, would you want that choice available to you? There is no shame in saying “no.” You might have to travel to see this person or go to that center of excellence, and it’s simply something you know you couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Understand that part of yourself now, before you select your health plan.

The other thing that worries me when people are making their benefits choices is they don’t think about if they can afford to be out of work for a period of time. The reason? It comes down again to how we assess our risks. Most of us don’t think anything will happen to us, so we don’t worry that we won’t be able to work for a period of time. Or, we believe we’ll have enough vacation time to cover an unpaid absence. Or, we think our parents or friends will loan us money.

Let me give you a snippet from my own life. During my working years, I’ve had two mountain-biking accidents that placed me on the disabled list, plus two concussions, two stress fractures, two broken toes, three episodes of back pain and a torn MCL. You may call me unlucky; I will tell you I live life off the sidelines. And so do most of you – whether you realize it or not.

So, first, make certain you understand your employer’s paid-time-off or vacation/sick time policies. This will give you good information about how vulnerable you might be financially if you leave work to have a child, or to repair your bunions, or take care of a sprained back, knee or shoulder – never mind if something more complicated happens.

My recommendation to you will always be to take advantage of your employer’s short- and/or long-term disability insurance policies. They are inexpensive and cost-effective ways to make certain you can afford to be out of work (and help you pay for associated costs such as money toward your high-deductible, co-pay or co-insurance).

Once you’ve consciously checked the boxes on the two things people who work tell me are most important to them – their health and their income – take a serious look at other benefits associated with an income stream such as your retirement plan. Make certain you know if and when you are eligible to receive retirement income from your employer, and how you can contribute the most money possible toward retirement programs such as 401(k) and 403(b) programs. Just as none of us think we’ll ever become ill, injured or experience an accident, we also think retirement is a far-away concept. Make certain to at least make a start with contributions.

What about the rest of your employee benefits options? Trust me, there are some wonderful benefits out there. If you have children, dental and vision insurance may be high on your priority list. But, before making those selections before the ones described above, make certain you understand the benefits and limitations to these policies. You may find there is an annual or a lifetime cap on benefits that doesn’t make these choices a good investment for you.

The bottom line for me every year? I consciously make certain I have the best help available to me through my benefits selections if something were to happen to my health or my income. And then I make sure I can retire from this part of my working life at a point of my choosing. I wish you the same.