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Open Season On Open Enrollment

October 12, 2004
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As 100 million Americans enter the open-enrollment season this fall, Watson Wyatt Worldwide reports, they can expect to see several major benefit changes: higher costs, new plan designs with fewer options, an increased focus on disease management and a surcharge for spousal coverage.

But the news isn’t entirely bleak, says Tom Billet, senior consultant in Watson Wyatt’s Stamford, Connecticut, office. Because employers are often able to offer ancillary benefits at a much lower rate than if employees were to purchase them individually, more employers are making voluntary benefits available for workers, he says. These include homeowner’s and automobile insurance, life insurance, low-rate mortgages and fitness-club memberships. Employees will also have greater access to tools to help them do such things as determine how much to contribute to a flexible spending account or  learn how to check the status of claims.

Rob Butler, a spokesman for MBI, a provider of benefit services in Waltham, Massachusetts, says the most significant trend in benefits administration is the move to plans that help employers and employees get more from pretax-benefit accounts. “At a time when consumers are expected to know more and to pay more, employers have embraced and sought out the help of benefits specialists so they can increase the participation in FSAs and HSAs [health savings accounts],” he says.

Despite some positive trends in benefit management, Billet says, human resources executives will not be facing an easy task when the benefit-enrollment season kicks off. “You might tell your employees, ‘It is extremely important to the company’s short- and long-term competitive advantage that we manage our costs successfully, and health care is one of the fastest-rising costs in our budget.’

“At some level, most employees expect to pay more,” Billet adds. “But that doesn’t mean the news will be well received.”

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