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Need Internet health info? Tickle the hippo

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There's no doubt that health care has become big business. The current debate over health care policy affects us as businesspeople in a different way than it does as health consumers.

Whether you are talking managed care, insurance, medical savings accounts or employer-provided health care plans, we're talking big bucks. And that of course means regulations. Government regulations.

You can stop quaking now. There are guideposts to health care information, and a lot of them can be found on the World Wide Web. Like information on diseases, treatments and miracle cures, information on the business side of health abounds on the Web.

However, it's a little more trustworthy if you start with these helpful sites:

Jane Bryant Quinn has been writing her syndicated personal finance columns since 1974. Her style is concise and easy to understand and her content is perceptive and on-target. Since she frequently writes on the subject of health care and the archive of her columns is arranged by subject, clicking on the "health care" link near the bottom of the page will give you easy access to all of her insights on this subject since 1996.

The Web master at Health Care Information Resources says the Health Hippo has "the wackiest approach to useful health care information I have ever seen."

In fact, it's unlikely that you'll find any other site that emphasizes the serious subject of health care-related policy and regulatory materials, and that also urges you to "tickle the Hippo to find out what's new."

Acclaimed and used by Lycos and US News & World Report, the Health Hippo brings you online documents which include congressional testimony, recent court decisions and legislation. This material is directed to such subjects as rural health, insurance, fraud and abuse, telemedicine, long-term care and quality assurance.

In Web parlance, meta sites are guides to other Web sites. Most meta sites are organized by topic, and they include hypertext (clickable) links to the sites that they list. This is a meta site of interesting and useful employee benefit links.

Among the topics are health plan administration, health plan policy and health plan info for employees. Under each topic you'll find chronologically arranged links, judiciously chosen and with succinct, insightful annotations.

Here's IRS Publication 969 on MSAs or Medical Savings Accounts. MSAs are a pilot project created to help self-employed individuals and employees of certain small employers meet medical care costs. You are not taxed on the money in an MSA if the money is used to pay qualified medical expenses.

If you click on the "previous" icon on the bottom of the page, you will be able to access Publication 502, which includes a list of deductible medical expenses.

From a legal firm that specializes in employee benefits, here is the legislative outlook for employee benefits in 1999. In the matter of health plan issues, they believe that Congress and the White House have signaled their intention to deal with managed care reform this year.

On the other hand, expanding health care coverage seems unlikely this year except for targeted populations. Attempts to encourage smaller employers who currently do not offer health benefits may come by way of tax incentives. Some members of Congress believe that better marketing of MSAs is necessary.

Are your retiree health care benefits secure? If your employer made a clear promise that you will have specific health benefits for life or for a definite period of time, you should be covered. You should review your summary plan description.

An employer is required to give a copy of the summary plan description, which summarizes the terms of the plan, to the employee within 90 days after she or he becomes a participant in the plan. Courts may also take into account any informal communications, which include the other written materials pertinent to benefits that may be given to the employee.

The documents in effect when you retire are the ones that will determine your health benefits in your retirement.

(Mike DePue is the business librarian at the Main Library, 397 East Central. For almost 18 years he has answered thousands of questions on as many topics.)

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