The Pre-existing Conditions: Buildup to Health Care Reform Bound to Bring Overload of Information

If employers find that explaining benefits to their employees is challenging now, then they should brace themselves for fall enrollment when workers are expected to receive an avalanche of marketing materials from insurers, health insurance exchanges and government agencies in anticipation of health care reform, experts say.

In addition to sifting through their own company’s benefits plans, employees will also be getting marketing materials from private and state health care exchanges, insurance providers and others who are expected to start peddling their products to consumers as 2014 approaches, says Jennifer Benz, founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. Under the individual mandate of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, all Americans will have to purchase health care insurance in 2014.

“In just a few months, the exchanges and insurers are going to start advertising themselves to employees,” Benz says. “We’ve never seen this before. Picture Geico and how prevalent their car insurance commercials are. We have no reason to think that health insurance marketing is not going to get that creative, prevalent and targeted.”

That means employees will have to not only understand their own company’s benefits plan, but also will need to know enough about the other options available to them in order to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

“The No. 1 implication for employees and employers is confusion,” Benz says. “Employers have never had to explain their benefits alongside another offering.”

And employees have never had to deal with so much benefits information at one time, experts say.

HR departments and call centers can expect to see a 50 percent increase this fall in the number of calls from employees seeking information, according Rhonda Newman, senior workforce communications consultant at Mercer. She says that few companies will be able to handle that kind of influx without an effective employee benefits communication plan.

In order to help employees understand how health care reform will affect their benefits, Mercer is launching a microsite this month called Health Care Reform Made Simple. Employers will be able to offer the site to their workers once they’ve purchased a subscription.

“Most employers have been focused on what health care reform means to their organization and the plans they offer, Newman says. “Just now are they turning their sights to the individual employee and the decisions they’ll need to make. Employers need to start thinking about how they’ll handle the mixed messages with regard to their workforce before then. If they wait until open enrollment, they’ll be playing catch-up.”

In response, a growing number of companies like Trustnode Inc. in San Francisco and Jellyvision Lab Inc. in Chicago have developed interactive decision-making tools to help employees choose their benefits.

Jellyvision, a developer of interactive online programs and games, including the video game You Don’t Know Jack, launched “Alex,” a virtual benefits counselor in 2009. The company plans to launch Alex Does Health Care Reform this summer in time for fall enrollment.

“Users will be able to estimate if they will be eligible for a subsidy to buy insurance on one of the exchanges,” says Henry White, director of product development for the company. “It will explain what health care reform is and how it will affect you and the benefits choices you make for 2014.”

Clearly, employees need help, and employers need to do a better job of communicating benefits, according to Dana Bagwell, director of benefits communication and education at Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co. Colonial released a survey April 2 showing that most workers think their employers are not doing it well.

“In fact, employees don’t give their companies very high marks for the effectiveness of their benefits communication,” Bagwell says. “Only 60 percent say it’s fairly or very effective, and 9 percent say it’s not at all effective.”

Not surprisingly, she says, only a third of employees who receive benefits at work say that they’re comfortable about making the right choices.

“The benefits landscape becoming more complex and over time more responsibility is being placed on the consumer,” Bagwell says. “When I started here at Colonial, I was asked for my name and address, and then it was, ‘Here’s your health plan.’ Those days are over.”

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior writer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.