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Survey: Health Reform Law Boosts Employer Benefit Communications

February 8, 2011
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Explaining benefit plan design changes to employees was employers' greatest challenge during the most recent open-enrollment period, and most found implementing the first phase of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to be relatively easy, according to a survey by Towers Watson & Co.
The first phase of the health reform law included offering coverage to employees' adult children up to age 26, eliminating annual and lifetime caps on benefits, and providing 100 percent coverage of preventive care. Fifty-two percent of employers responding to the New York-based consulting firm's survey said that implementing those initial administrative changes was “somewhat easy” for their organization.
The survey, titled Annual Benefit Enrollment 2011, also found that employers boosted their use of technology to facilitate employee understanding, with 84 percent using e-mails to communicate benefit plan choices in 2010, up from 76 percent in 2009. Thirty-three percent used podcasts, Web-based videos or online chats to communicate enrollment information in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2009.
Although the use of social media is small—just 4 percent in 2010—it doubled from just 2 percent of employers using Web communication such as blogs; a “wiki,” or user-created website; text messages and RSS feeds.
Although employers made greater use of technology in 2010, they did not abandon traditional benefit communications. The percentage of employers holding face-to-face meetings with employees increased to 60 percent in 2010 from 53 percent in 2009, while direct conversations with human resources departments rose to 58 percent last year from 50 percent the year before. In addition, 73 percent sent printed materials to employees' homes, up from 69 percent in 2009.
Sixty-four percent of employers said they plan to boost their communication efforts further during the next 12 months, with 47 percent saying they plan to make more plan design changes next year. Forty-four percent plan to provide more self-service capabilities to employees in 2011.
The survey, conducted in December 2010 and based on responses from 209 U.S. employers, also found that the days of paper-based benefit enrollment are coming to an end. Just 9 percent of employers used paper-based enrollment last year, down from 14 percent in 2009.
“With health benefit costs continuing to increase, and benefit plans and choices becoming more complex, communicating with employees has never been more important,” said Jeri Stepman, San Diego-based national practice leader for health and welfare outsourcing at Towers Watson.
“Employers are taking advantage of both the technology and decision-support tools available to them to make the open-enrollment process as efficient as possible. At the same time, they are arming their employees with information needed to make educated decisions about their benefits for the coming year.”
Although a greater percentage of employers provided decision-support tools for employees, 57 percent in 2010 vs. 45 percent in 2009, dissatisfaction with those tools increased, especially for total out-of-pocket expenses for various plans using claims data as a predictor. Only 37 percent of employers expressed satisfaction with such tools, down from 71 percent in 2009.    
Filed by Joanne Wojcik of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.
 
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