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How to Have a Successful Open Enrollment

Rising health care costs. Persistent high inflation. A combination of hybrid, office and remote workers. Higher employee expectations.

For those reasons and more, this year's open enrollment is looking a little different from years past.

"Enrollment is such a certainty every year for both employers and employees," said WTW managing director Casey Hauch. "But I really feel like there are some factors that are causing it to be a bit of a unique year."

For instance, this year is likely different from enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic, when employers largely embraced remote work for traditional office workers. Although several employers are bringing workers back into offices, many are still remote, producing a spread-out workforce that might make enrollment complicated for HR and benefits leaders.

For those reasons, Hauch said, "we're seeing a lot more complexity around communication strategies. It's important employers are thoughtful and think about benefits messaging so it can be relevant for different workers."

In short? It's even more important for employers to get open enrollment right.

So, how can employers ensure they make open enrollment a success? Lots of strategies come into play, from old and new communication techniques to promoting available voluntary benefits and talking with employees about rising health care costs.

SHRM Online spoke to a number of experts for their insight.

Talk to employees. 

Before enrollment kicks off, it's a good idea for HR to grasp how employees are feeling about things. Are they stressed about their finances? Are they looking for specific types of help from their employer? Do they understand how certain benefits work? What kind of questions do they have about enrollment and their options?

That can inform an organization's strategy on focus areas or communication tactics during enrollment. Perhaps they are looking for help on how to stretch their health care dollars this year, or maybe they want to learn about employee-paid options.

Lian Neeman, director of global benefits at Amazon, said the online retail giant has regular listening sessions with its employees to hear about what benefits workers are looking for, their pain points and the help they need—not just around enrollment time, but year-round.

"I think you always need to be listening to what's top of mind," she said.

Embrace technology. 

Due to the number of remote and far-flung workers, there's a big focus on digital communication, which is helpful for reaching employees in an accessible way, Hauch said. For instance, virtual benefits fairs—where employees can visit vendors through an online platform and get information on their offerings—are a growing trend among employers, as are benefits portals, virtual meetings and sharing information via channels like Slack. That's a good thing because it can help employees easily access the information they need when they need it.

But don't neglect traditional communication forms, either. 

Even though technology is important in communicating about benefits, employers should still leverage traditional methods of communication—including, perhaps most importantly, personal guidance from HR and benefits leaders—during open enrollment, experts said.

"While online tools and resources have their place—for quick messages and reminders or high-level guidance—it cannot replace a more thorough review of the plan options available, what employees should consider about their own personal circumstances as they make benefit decisions and what they should keep in mind once their coverage is in place," said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at Optavise, a Carmel, Ind.-based benefits administration firm.

Group meetings are key, as are one-on-one counseling sessions to make sure employees are getting the information they need, she said. "Our studies have shown that employees are more satisfied with their benefits and are more likely to proactively add other coverage to fill any gaps in their package when they can take advantage of a personal connection."

Meanwhile, Hauch said, employers should consider sending benefits enrollment information to employees' homes—not just their email inboxes. That's because snail mail piece can capture employees' attention more than email, which can be overwhelming. It also offers another bonus: getting the attention of employees' spouses and family members.

"Sometimes the spouse or the partner is the medical decision-maker and we want to get in front of them, or maybe they're someone who is contributing to higher health care costs," Hauch said. "Reaching spouses and family members is important."

Discuss voluntary benefits. Voluntary benefits are growing in importance and are a major component of open enrollment, said Brian Russell, U.S. voluntary benefits practice leader at Mercer. That's especially true this year because persistent high cost of living has had a detrimental effect on employees and is causing them to evaluate more offerings that could help ease financial pressures.

"Voluntary benefits have gone mainstream; they continue to be table stakes for employees because some of them offer protection against financial shocks and unexpected costs," he said.

There's an emphasis on several voluntary benefits that fit with open enrollment—such as supplemental health benefits, critical illness, accident insurance and hospital indemnity—and can help alleviate some of the gaps or the cost exposures left by many consumer-driven health plans and other major medical options, he said.

Talk about—and explain—health care costs. 

Health care costs are on the rise, driven by factors including more chronic conditions, rising prescription drug prices and overall inflation. Data from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans finds that employers are projecting an average increase of 7 percent next year in their costs. Employers should talk about rising health care costs with employees—especially if they are raising employee costs.

If a company plans to raise premiums or deductibles, for instance, that conversation needs to be explained and not be a surprise for employees, said Matthew Owenby, CHRO at Aflac. Explaining it can also start a conversation around how employees can be better health care consumers and save money.

"I can see the inclination not to call that out and not to say, 'We're going to pass along higher deductibles,' which is what we're seeing this year, or 'We're going to pass along more options that are going to be more expensive for you.' Perhaps some employers don't want to call attention to that," he said. "But if you're trying to control the expenses of a benefits program and 80 percent of your expense is coming from the management of your dependents as well as your employees, you probably want to have a conversation with them and maybe say, 'Benefits are going up in cost, so here are some things you can do from a wellness perspective and here are some things you can do to help us keep the overall cost of the plan down.'"

Owenby said he makes it a point to talk about benefits and health care costs with his employees throughout the year, not just during enrollment.

Explain savings accounts. 

Enrollment is usually the time when employees sign up for a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA), if offered, to accompany their health plan—but many employees are not aware of what the accounts do, how they work or how they can help, said Itamar Romanini, vice president and general manager of HSA Store.

For example, many people don't know that FSAs and HSAs can be used to pay for over-the-counter medications as well as routine clinic visits, surgical procedures and a wide variety of special services like dental and orthodontic treatments and even acupuncture, he said. "This knowledge can directly influence how employees use their health benefits and their FSA or HSA, which ultimately impacts engagement and re-enrollment."

Enrollment is a great time for employers to offer employees education on the accounts and explain how they can help them save money for their health care needs. "FSAs and HSAs are an excellent complement to your company-sponsored health plan, which means that employees need to have a solid understanding of how these plans work and how they support the health plan year-round, not just during open enrollment," Romanini said. "Teach them how FSAs and HSAs can fill in coverage gaps and how to use them to care for everyday health needs."

Use open enrollment as an opportunity to talk about all your benefits offerings.

Enrollment is a vital time for employees to enroll in their health plan and other benefits—but it's also a great time to educate workers about all their offerings, even when they don't have to enroll in them, experts said. You can talk about wellness programs or mental health offerings, for instance, as mental health challenges have been increasing for scores of employees.

"We recommend employers not only focus on the communication of the benefits that employees are about to enroll in, but also to tell them about other benefits they have," Russell said. "It's a great opportunity when you have the attention of your employees to also point them to the future of the great work that you're doing in order to continue to provide those rich benefits and continue to expand the tent and to continue to provide inclusive benefits for them in the near term and in the future."

Amy Antonacci, senior vice president of account management at well-being provider LifeSpeak, suggested that employers can promote wellness program offerings during enrollment by featuring a combination of employee and leadership voices in their communications. "Real-life stories from employees will make your well-being initiatives stand out and will allow employees to see themselves in these offerings and to take comfort that they are not alone in their well-being needs or challenges," she said.

Have metrics. 

Enrollment is only successful if employers define what successful means to them, Hauch said.

"You need to put objectives and metrics around it," she said. "What do you as an employer want to accomplish? Is enrollment mandatory? Is it OK if employees carry over their benefits from the previous year? Deciding what and how you want to manage enrollment—and setting parameters in place to measure that—is really important."