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HR Magazine: Writing for Open Enrollment

By Pamela Babcock  6/1/2006
 

HR Magazine, June 2006

Vol. 51, No. 6

Keep your employees from wading into a morass of confusing information.

The 2005 documentary March of the Penguins told the amazing story of the long, cold journey that emperor penguins make each year to reach their breeding ground and renew their numbers. It’s a story that many employees can relate to as they trudge each fall to open enrollment meetings and struggle through a sea of densely written health care documents before renewing or changing their plan options.

This annual march is made all the more difficult by the nature of the choices that employees must make. Health coverage decisions are often numerous, complex and—in light of rising costs—emotionally sensitive. Choices are even more complex if they include high-deductible plans, such as those tied to health savings accounts or health reimbursement accounts.

Thus, it’s in the best interests of everyone involved—employees, the company and HR—to ensure that benefits enrollment information is written and presented in a manner that is clear, straightforward and authoritative. If it is not and enrollment bogs down, organizations can lose time and productivity and may experience decreases in morale.

Inefficient benefits communication at this important time also can lead to poor choices by employees—which can result in headaches for employees and HR alike when workers try to change their selections later.

“By providing your employees with useful, timely information, you minimize the number of people who need to contact an HR rep or call center with questions,” says Alison Davis, CEO and president of Davis & Co., a Glen Rock, N.J., employee communications consulting firm. “That saves the company time and money.”

The ultimate question is “How best to communicate such complex information in writing to employees?”

The answer in some way resembles that annual march of the penguins. The journey may involve a lot of work, but it’s time and effort well spent. 

Focusing on the Facts

Whether you mail written information packets to employees’ homes, direct workers to postings online or do both, remember that there’s a limit to the amount of information they’ll digest before their eyes glaze over.

As a result, it pays to focus on what matters most to employees.

According to Lynne J. Sport—a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Total Rewards/Compensation and Benefits Special Expertise Panel, and director of HR and administration at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.—there are four key things employees want—and need—to know about their health plan options during open enrollment:

  • First, have any plans been added or deleted from the offerings? If only one plan will be offered, is it the same as employees have had this year? If there’s a new coverage provider, are there changes in participating doctors?
  • Second, will there be changes in types of coverage in plans that are being offered again? For example, if there’s a prescription drug plan, are the categories of drugs still the same?
  • Third, are any co-pays, deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums being changed for the coming year?
  • Last, will employees’ costs be higher next year? And how much money will come out of an employee’s check each pay period?

Sport adds that there’s one query HR should not try to answer. “One question we get time and time again when people start is ‘What plan should I choose?’ or ‘What plan do most people choose?’ And we say, ‘You have to choose the one that’s best for you.’ ” 

Sport adds: “I don’t want to say, ‘Choose this plan’ and then it doesn’t meet the employee’s expectations. We never give people advice on what plan to choose, but we will explain the basic difference between a PPO and an HMO, and that often helps people make a choice.”

Compare Apples to Apples

If your employees have a choice between more than one coverage provider, experts recommend that you develop a printed sheet or web page that compares each plan’s features in a uniform manner.

“People have a really hard time reading a lot of verbiage about each plan and then synthesizing it in their own mind unless you say, ‘Here are two plans: One is a PPO, one is an HMO; one has a deductible, one has a co-pay,’ ” Sport says.

“They really want the ability to compare apples to apples,” adds Davis.

Uniform presentation not only helps employees find facts, it also shows that the employer—not the vendor—is presenting information objectively, with no marketing embroidery.

Karen L. Ling, vice president of employee benefits and human resource policies at Wyeth, a global pharmaceutical and biotechnology company in Madison, N.J., says: “We feel strongly that our open enrollment communications should be custom-built and Wyeth-branded. After all, the benefits are Wyeth benefits designed for Wyeth employees, provided by and paid for by the company and our employees.”

Whether in print or online, others agree, materials should have a common look and feel. That can be difficult when vendors brand communication materials. To work around that, consider putting your company’s branding on the materials. In fact, many vendors provide a template on which you can put your logo, or they provide copy that you can insert in your own company templates. 

Do It Yourself Or Farm It Out?

In general, experts say open enrollment information should be written by someone with expertise in employee benefits communications. At larger organizations, that may be someone in HR or an employee communication specialist. If you don’t have such an expert on your payroll, consider hiring an outside specialist or consulting firm.

Sport, who pens her own copy, sees the advantages that both HR professionals and communication experts can provide. “HR people are good at writing the documents because they know the questions that people ask, so they can write to those questions,” she says. “But communication people can make the documents punchy and more interesting.”

Davis adds that communication professionals can help HR convey complex information more clearly.

“Many benefits managers become such subject-matter experts—which they should be—that they can’t remember what it’s like to be an average person who needs information translated into simple, plain language,” says Davis, whose firm provides that “translation” help to Wyeth and other companies. 

Keeping It Simple

There’s a lot at stake when communicating something as valuable, sensitive and visible as employee health care benefits. There’s not only a legal liability but also a risk of confusing employees and making administrative mistakes.

“All of that would undermine our credibility and erode the trust we’re building with our employees,” says Wyeth’s Ling.

To maintain accuracy and quality, Wyeth has insurance carriers and plan administrators review all materials. Further, the company relies on internal benefits counsel to ensure legal and technical accuracy and to make sure communications include the required disclosure that plan documents ultimately govern benefits plans.

What others do with reviewers’ comments varies. Carnegie Endowment recently ran into this issue when communicating a new long-term-care program.

The providers “wanted to see every communication because they were concerned with liability, but everything they sent back to us was dense and wordy and legal-like,” Sport says. “Yes, you should run it by them, but you have to have the courage to change their wording somewhat so that it’s not so dense and difficult to read.”

Davis says one way to keep legal language and caveats from slowing the flow of information is to post the summary plan description on your benefits intranet or make copies available in HR.

“It’s a good compromise because it fulfills the legal requirement without bogging employees down in the details of the plan description, which is almost unreadable by a normal human being,” Davis says.

Choosing the Medium For the Message

Most organizations use print supplemented by online communications, but a few have moved strictly online. Print is often a necessity in industries such as manufacturing, retail, and trucking or transportation, where many employees lack access to a computer at work.

Wyeth, which has an estimated 25,000 eligible employees in the United States, provides both print and online materials. Some employees prefer hard-copy materials, others like to skim and browse on the Internet, and “most like a combination of both,” Ling says.

Along with other employers interviewed for this story, Wyeth tries to make the online experience feel the same as the one for print materials by using the same brand, style and design, including similar colors, fonts, layout, graphics and images. “There should be no doubt in an employee’s mind that they’re reading about Wyeth benefits,” Ling says.

Because people like to receive and digest information in different ways, Wyeth conveys messages in a variety of formats and venues, including e-mail, print and its HR Portal. Each has advantages.

On the HR Portal, employees can access HTML summaries, links to relevant sites, PDF documents, forms, FAQs and more. Wyeth also posts printed materials in PDF format on its HR Portal and Wyeth HR Service Center web site.

The Carnegie Endowment, which has 110 employees in the United States, is bucking the trend and doesn’t provide any printed handouts for its open enrollment period. Since many employees travel and telecommute, Sport says, it has found success with a strictly electronic process. The organization contracts with a vendor to host a customized, password-protected benefits site for employees that has plan highlights and links to more detailed information.

Leading up to enrollment, the Carnegie Endowment sends e-mails containing smaller, “bite-sized chunks” of information—rather than bombarding employees with information all at once—to encourage employees to review different aspects of the plan online during a two-week period before enrollment begins.

“This might not work for all companies, but because we’re a think tank, we have a highly literate, fairly sophisticated population,” Sport observes, explaining that organizations can help by tying information together. 

After Enrollment Ends

Over the past several years, many companies have made a concerted effort to help employees and managers understand the business implications of rising health care costs, as well as their role in helping control costs. To that end, IBM looks for ways to make health and health care education a year-round experience through platforms such as health care site WebMD and through prevention and wellness initiatives.

“While the coverage employees choose during the annual enrollment period is important, health care decision-making doesn’t begin and end there,” says Dr. Martin Sepulveda, IBM’s vice president of global health benefits and well-being services.

And when open enrollment ends, don’t assume your work is done. Experts say it’s critical to continually improve the process. For example, each year Wyeth conducts an open enrollment survey during online enrollment. Feedback has led the pharmaceutical giant to develop and introduce the Health Plan Decision Maker, an online tool that adjusts the layout of personalized worksheets to more clearly delineate before-tax vs. after-tax benefits contributions, and to encourage local sites to offer benefits fairs during open enrollment. Based on employee feedback, the company also began delivering enrollment information prior to the enrollment period—including e-mail announcements and printed enrollment kits mailed to employees’ homes.

By being proactive, HR can ensure that open enrollment doesn’t cause a flood of phone calls, e-mails and questions, and that employees receive the care and attention they deserve when it comes to making health care plan decisions. 

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. She has worked as a reporter for The Washington Post and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., as well as in corporate communications.

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 Web Extras

 

Written Communication Tips 

 Dos 

  • Communicate not only with employees but also with families or partners by mailing information home. Health care decisions are often made at the kitchen table.
  • Focus on what decisions employees must make, the costs they need to share, the forms they need to complete and the deadlines they need to know.
  • When writing copy, use the tone and informative style of a good consumer magazine.
  • Adopt a partnership approach, not a paternalistic one. Treat employees like adults rather than children to whom benefits are “given.” Says Alison Davis, CEO and president of Davis & Co., an employee communications consulting firm: “Tell it to them straight; they can take it.”
  • Make written communications as personal as possible. Answer the question, “What does this mean to me?”
  • Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm employees with legal language or technical jargon.
  • Stagger communications before, during and after open enrollment. But don’t have too much lag time. At Wyeth, for example, after the company kicks off open enrollment with an e-mail message, detailed information is sent to employees’ homes within about five business days.
  • Put information in context—briefly give the business case and reasons behind any changes.

Dont’s

  • Don’t try to say too much. Offer information in bite-sized chunks. “More information is sometimes just more information,” says Lynne J. Sport, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Total Rewards/Compensation and Benefits Special Expertise Panel, and director of HR and administration at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • Don’t use HR-speak or make things too technical. Avoid vendor jargon.
  • Don’t put too much in a written packet or it will be so overwhelming people won’t want to read it.
  • If costs are rising, don’t sugarcoat it. “People really want you to tell them the truth,” says Davis.

The Wyeth Way

When Wyeth, a global pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, introduces benefits changes, including open enrollment changes, the company first gives employees a quick summary chart that shows how the benefits plans work today, how they will change and what it means for the employee.

The company provides a variety of materials in a series of releases before, during and after enrollment, and delivers them in a variety of media and formats. The centerpiece is a personalized package mailed to the employees’ homes that’s created internally with input from strategic communication consultants; plan administrators; insurers; and Wyeth’s HR Service Center, a third-party provider that includes a call center and fulfillment services.

“Our own Wyeth communication and benefits experts team up to oversee the materials from soup to nuts—from planning to implementation to measurement,” says Karen L. Ling, vice president of employee benefits and human resource policies. The company encourages employees to visit carriers’ web sites and to call their toll-free numbers for more specific information.

In the open enrollment package, in addition to the summary chart of what’s changing, Wyeth includes a one-page, at-a-glance summary of key provisions of Wyeth medical plan options. The format of each is identical so employees can do a side-by-side comparison.

Wyeth posts a PDF version of these pages on its HR Portal and Wyeth HR Service Center web site.



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