Biggest financial surprises of 2011

Thu Dec 22, 2011 3:13pm EST
 
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By John Wasik

(Reuters) - In every year, there are a host of surprises that come along like earthquakes: They are nearly impossible to predict.

Who would have thought that Congress would be at loggerheads over raising its debt ceiling or that Standard & Poor's would cut the credit rating on U.S. Treasuries? On top of that, who would have then foreseen that U.S. paper would still be regarded as a global safe haven, gold would tumble and interest rates would continue to fall?

We can be thankful that more didn't go wrong with the global economy, although things could certainly go haywire next year. Here are some things that surprised me personally and professionally this year and may flummox us in the next 12 months.

1.Healthcare reform is on track, maybe. Despite all of the dire predictions, the Affordable Care Act, also derisively known as "Obamacare," managed to provide insurance for 2.5 million young adults in 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That's a good start for an ambitious program.

But hold your applause. The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the constitutionality of the law in 2012, particularly its mandate for the uninsured to buy coverage. Many economists say that without the mandate the plan will fail, so anything could happen. I hope it survives and Congress expands it to cover more people at a lower cost.

2. You can negotiate on big healthcare bills. This was a huge surprise to me this year. Due to two health emergencies, my family had some sizable out-of-pocket bills this year - more than $6,000. With a large deductible and virtually no coverage for doctor's visits and out-of-hospital tests, we asked our local hospitals for help in reducing the cost of our care. They exceeded my expectations and I was grateful.

Are healthcare providers more accommodating to the under-insured in the wake of the Affordable Care Act? I'm not sure, although it doesn't hurt that the Department of Health and Human Services is using their bully pulpit to monitor health insurance premium increases. More needs to be done, of course, and there are still about 40 million American uninsured. So the Supreme Court ruling looms large.

3. Patronizing local merchants still makes sense. Don't get me wrong. I love online shopping. I can find things online that I can't find in the stores and at a competitive price. I'm a big fan of Cyber Monday. I also like the free shipping and energy efficiency of the transaction. I hate malls.   Continued...