Your health insurance might offer unexpected savings. Some group and individual health insurers have negotiated discounts on behalf of their members on products and services. These discounts are not always well-publicized, and many plan members don't even realize they exist. Read your health insurance company's mailings, or visit its Web site to see if there are any special discounts through your plan.

These discounts typically are categorized as "perks" rather than plan benefits, which means insurance companies can alter or discontinue them without first notifying plan members. Contact your insurance provider or the company featured in the offer to confirm that a discount still is in effect. Also, ask if any special rules or limitations apply.

Common Discounts

Among the benefits found in many health insurance plans…

  • Fitness club memberships. Many health plans offer a discount of 10% to 20% or more off the cost of gym membership. This discount usually is available only at select national fitness chains, and you may have to prove that you use the gym regularly. Some plans also include discounts at yoga studios...or discounts on the purchase of fitness equipment from participating retailers.
  • Naturopathic treatments. Some insurance companies cover these treatments. Those that don't may offer discounts of 20% or more on acupuncture, chiropractic services, massage therapy and hypnotherapy.

Example: Most Anthem Blue Cross of California members can get these discounts simply by showing their membership cards at participating providers.

  • Weight-loss programs. Savings of 20% or more off membership in national weight-loss chains, such as Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, are common. Even the special low-calorie meals required by some weight-loss programs may be discounted.
  • Quit-smoking programs. Insurance plans often cover quit-smoking programs in part or in whole. Discounts might be available on nicotine patches, gum and related products.

Other Perks

These perks turn up only occasionally in health insurance plans, but they are worth watching for..

  • Cosmetic surgery and dentistry. Cosmetic procedures typically are not covered by health insurance, but some plans do offer special negotiated rates on elective surgery at participating providers. Covered procedures could include Botox injections, face-lifts and tooth whitening. The savings often are 20% or more off standard rates.

Examples: Members of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina are eligible for significant discounts on cosmetic surgery through participating providers.

  • Vision correction. Some insurance com panies offer discounts on eyeglasses, contact lenses, even laser surgery.

Example: Golden Rule owned by UnitedHealthcare) offers 10% to 60% savings on eye exams, eyeglasses, contact lenses and LASIK laser eye surgery to their members through an affiliation with the Federation of American Consumers and Travelers.

  • Prescription and nonprescription drug coverage without a drug plan. Even if your health plan does not include drug coverage, there might be a discount of 10% or more if you purchase your drugs at a "partner" drugstore.
  • Vitamins and supplements. Discounts of as much as 40% to 50% sometimes are available. You will need to buy your vitamins through a designated provider to receive these savings.
  • Book discounts. Some insurance plans have partnered with online book sellers to offer discounts of 5% or 10% on "featured" books. These books typically focus on health and/or wellness topics.
  • Travel discounts. Some major health insurers have negotiated discount rates for their members at hotel chains, car-rental chains and amusement parks. Savings can be 10% to 20%. Read the discount terms carefully-in some cases, members must provide special discount codes or reserve their discount rates in other cases, members simply show their insurance plan membership cards upon arrival.

Example: Members of Golden Rule can get 20% discounts at participating Choice Hotels International, such as Comfort Suites and Econo Lodge...10% off Magellan's Travel Supplies...and car-rental discounts.

Lower Cost Health Insurance For Early Retirees

Health insurance for early retirees is being offered by a small number of the largest US companies. Many employees are reluctant to accept early-retirement packages because of the cost of getting their own health coverage-if they can obtain it at all. So some large companies32 of them so far-are taking part in Retiree Health Access, an Aetna plan that helps retirees buy health insurance at discounted group rates. Fifteen of the participating companies are giving benefits to early retirees for the first time. Other insurers are setting up similar plans.

More information: Talk to your human resources department.

A Layoff Can Put Your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) in Jeopardy

When employees are let go, they typically are allowed to spend FSA money on health-care expenses incurred while still covered by the employer's benefits plan. This coverage often ends on the last day of the month in which the employee is terminated. After that, remaining FSA money is forfeited (unless you sign up for COBRA).

Self-defense: Schedule health procedures and stock up on health products before coverage ends.

Medical Credit Cards—An Unhealthy Choice

Medical debt does not usually show up on a credit report unless it goes to collection-but consumer debt shows up immediately and can have a big impact if you pay bills late. Medical cards, offered by GE Money, Citigroup and other banks, can be used only for health-care expenses and have 0% interest rates for as long as 12 months. The cards usually are offered to people who are having trouble paying their health-care costs-making it likely that they will end up carrying a balance after the zero-interest period expires.

Self-defense: Instead of getting a medical credit card, negotiate the fee and a payment plan with the provider directly.

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