It’s Always the Time of the Season for Benefits Open Enrollment

With shifting plans and new laws, communicating benefits options has become a year-round event.

August 8, 2013

For most benefits managers, fall open enrollment is the event of the year with a weekslong push to educate employees about their health care options. But given the changes brought by health care reform, employers must shift their focus from educating to changing employee behaviors — a goal that requires a more strategic communications approach, according to one expert.

“We in the benefits arena have spent too much time focusing on annual enrollment like it’s the Super Bowl of the benefits year,” said Joann Hall Swenson, a consultant at Aon Hewitt in Minneapolis. “Having a year-round strategy is really critical these days. Employers need to look  at which communication channels work best, communicating not only with employees but with their family members, and equipping the HR team and managers to answer questions at any time.”

The goal of employee communications is shifting from helping employees understand their benefits to getting them to change their behaviors, she said.

According to a survey released earlier this year by Aon Hewitt and the National Business Group on Health, 83 percent of consumers know what they need to do to be healthy, like eating right, exercising and not smoking, but persistent obstacles prevent them from making changes. Most cited a lack of time to focus on health-related activities followed by a “lack of willingness to sacrifice.” Other factors included confusion over coverage, too much information and a lack of information on health care costs.

“We encourage employers not to waste time lecturing people on what they already know,” Swenson said. “Instead, we want employers to focus on actions and take practical steps toward driving behaviors, like breaking down information into bite-sized pieces and getting personalized guidance.”

Slightly more than 40 percent of employees want wellness and health benefit information that is tailored to their specific needs, according to the study.

Change Healthcare Corp., a developer of Web-based educational programs, is among a growing number of companies that develop interactive tools designed to help employees understand their health care costs and benefits.

The company’s main product, called Transparency Messenger, tracks an individual’s health care costs and use of services and sends out customized savings information via email or mobile alerts.

“We are constantly scanning the database of claims and looking at others who purchased the same services, things like maintenance medications, physical therapy, mental health, chiropractic, and we shop on your behalf,” said Doug Ghertner, CEO of the Brentwood, Tennessee-based company. “When we find someone who paid less, we send out an alert.”

Ghertner said that around 60 percent of employees act on that information, whether it’s investigating further, declining the information or updating their preference profile. Getting employees to take an interest in their benefits at a time of low morale and decreasing engagement is a goal that most employers strive for, he said. 

Using creative communication tools and strategies is the key to getting employees to take control of their health and their health care spending, whether it’s interactive games or returning to old-fashioned snail mail, according Karen Marlo, vice president of the National Business Group on Health.

“Health care is behind the times in terms of benefits communication,” she said. “It’s been very dry and fact-based. But employees love personal assessments or watching a funny video on YouTube. In this day and age, when employers have to communicate so much it’s about finding the right strategy.”

She said one company has taken a low-tech approach, mailing a box filled with benefits communication to every employee’s home twice a year, in addition to the materials they get at work.

“People only have so much attention that they’re willing to give and for some reason this really grabs them,” Marlo said. “It comes in a big box with a letter. It’s like getting a present. Employers need to try novel approaches sometimes to find what works.”

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.