It's a new year and if you're like a majority of Americans, improving your health is a top resolution. Whether your goal is to lose weight, quit smoking or just take overall better care of yourself, you may have a surprising ally: your health insurance company. Facing the surge of an aging baby boomer population, health insurance companies are looking for ways to reduce their customers' (and therefore their own) overall healthcare costs. Unless you have read your plan booklet cover to cover you may not be aware of the free or discounted benefits that could help you have a happier, healthier and more productive 2010. Here are a few options you may be interested in learning more about from your healthcare insurance provider. (For background reading, see Intro To Insurance: Health Insurance.)

Kick the Habit, Cut Your Premiums
Smoking is one of the top high-risk behaviors that can lead to chronic (and expensive) medical conditions such as lung cancer, emphysema and stroke. This means that it's more cost-effective for health insurance companies to help you quit smoking than to pay for medical care once you are diagnosed with a serious smoking-related illness. Ask your doctor or the human resources department at your workplace about smoking cessation programs and check with your insurance company to see if it will cover the cost of a cessation program or provide other incentives such as lower premiums or even cash rewards for kicking the habit. For example, health insurance provider CIGNA offers customers a 50% discount on an eight-week supply of Habitrol (nicotine replacement therapy) patches and 35% off Quitnet's online tobacco cessation program. And, once you're a non-smoker, you may be able to negotiate lower health insurance premiums too. (Find out more about the effects of smoking on your bottom line in The Real Cost Of Smoking.)

Get Fit for a Lower Fee
Obesity has become one of the top, most serious medical conditions in the U.S. The rate of people classified as obese has more than doubled since 1987; today nearly 130 million Americans, or 64% of the total U.S. population, are medically-classified as overweight or obese. Obesity has been linked to chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes that require long-term, expensive care. By helping individuals lose weight and achieve a healthy lifestyle, health insurance companies can save money on the costs associated with otherwise-preventable chronic conditions. If you have health insurance through an employer's plan check to see if you could qualify for fitness and weight-related benefits such as free health risk assessments, sessions with a personal trainer or nutritionist, or even reduced or free gym memberships. For example, Wellpoint Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield offers its employees a 50% discount on Weight Watchers At Work meetings, a subscription to Weight Watchers online and vouchers for local meetings. Similarly, people with insurance coverage through Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey can get up to 50% off Jenny Craig programs or free telephone coaching for weight management.

Take Care of Yourself and Be Rewarded
If you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, congestive heart failure or asthma it is in your insurance company's best (financial) interest that you learn how to manage your disease. Knowing how to monitor your condition, learning the signs of potential changes in your health and working closely with your doctor make it less likely that you will require costly emergency intervention; you are also likely to greatly increase your quality of life. In such cases, your insurance plan may have benefits of which you are not aware. For example, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield offers free classes and tools for plan holders with chronic diseases, while UnitedHealthcare's "Diabetes Health Plan" rewards diabetics and pre-diabetic individuals who routinely manage their condition - with regular blood sugar checks, routine exams and preventive screenings - with free diabetes supplies, free diabetes-related prescription drugs, and lower co-payments for diabetes-related doctor visits. (For more cost-cutting tips, see 20 Ways To Save On Medical Bills.)

Care for Your Kids at Reduced Cost
Raising healthy children is an important priority for most parents; it's a priority for many insurers, too. In fact, many health insurance companies provide discounted programs and incentives to help parents reach that goal. On top of covereage for more basic healthcare services, many insurers will provide access to additional measures to protect your children from harm and keep them healthy. For example, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey gives account holders a discount on umbilical cord blood storage through the provider ViaCord and a 15% discount on child safety products through SafeBeginnings.

Hone in on Healthy Alternatives
Have you been interested in supplementing your current health and medical care with other non-traditional methods and therapies? Some insurance companies are willing to help you find - and pay for - affordable alternative products. For example, through its Natural Products and Services Discount Program, Aetna provides discounts on services including acupuncture and massage therapy as well as products like vitamins and yoga equipment. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey provides up to 40% off retail prices and free shipping on vitamins and supplements, herbal remedies, yoga and fitness activities, homeopathic remedies, etc. through its ChooseHealthy internet resource.

Find Help Online and Over the Phone
To improve customers' access to real-time information regarding their medical conditions and care options, more insurers are offering free or discounted online and digital phone tools. For example, UnitedHealthcare recently unveiled its new DocGPS app for the Apple iPhone - the application allows users to quickly find, contact and get directions to nearby doctors, clinics and hospitals covered under their specific health plans. The company also provides a free online care cost calculator to help members compare care providers and the cost for different treatment options. Humana provides specialty benefits through employer group health plans including employee assistance programs (EAP)/work-life programs such as unlimited free telephone support, face-to-face counseling or assessments, and referral sessions to get help managing a wide range of issues and needs such as childcare referrals, adoption assistance, care for depression and anxiety, etc.

Health insurance benefits, services and programs vary widely between plans and providers. Check your policy to see what free and discounted services you may be able to take advantage of to get started on the right foot toward a more physically and financially healthy 2010.

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