Open Enrollment Tips for the Coming Season

Set out benefit enrollment goals, and then plan a communication strategy to achieve them

Sep 5, 2016
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Some HR professionals dread the fall open enrollment season for employee benefits, viewing it as an annual administrative headache. Other HR pros see it as an opportunity to personally engage with employees—thereby helping them to make choices that will safeguard their health and financial well-being.

SHRM Online recently spoke with two open enrollment experts who shared their advice for avoiding the former and achieving the latter.

Learn from Last Year's Enrollment

Look back on how your company fared during last year's open enrollment period and take steps to eliminate inefficiencies and information bottlenecks, advised Kim Buckey, vice president of compliance communications at Birmingham, Ala.-based DirectPath, an employee engagement and health care compliance firm. "Look at whether you got the enrollment you wanted within particular plans."

She also urged benefit managers to ask:

Open Enrollment Season

For tips on helping employees make the best choices of benefits during open enrollment, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

· Guide to Open Enrollment
· Health Benefits Glossary of Terms · Explaining High Deductible Plans to Employees
  • What were the most time-consuming aspects, and how can they be streamlined this year?
  • What were the questions that employees asked most frequently?

"The answers can help inform how you should deliver education and enrollment support this year," Buckey said.

Make It 'Active'

To engage employees around their benefits, use an "active" enrollment strategy that requires employees to select the health care plan and other benefits they want, rather than one that allows them to passively continue with their selections from the prior year.

"Active enrollment makes a huge difference," said Meredith Ryan-Reid, senior vice president for group, voluntary and worksite benefits at insurer MetLife in New York City. "Having employees reapply each year requires them to reassess whether they're making the right choices for themselves and their families. It also helps ensure that you're getting up-to-date information about your employees and their dependents."

Active enrollment initially is more of a burden on an HR department, Ryan-Reid admitted. "There certainly is more of an effort involved, but if you do it once, next year employees will have a heightened awareness about it and everyone gets into the rhythm."

Engage with Employees

Consider the communication preferences of different groups of employees, Buckey said. For instance, "Employees just starting their careers are the most underinsured group and may see student debt rather than health coverage as a more pressing priority." That could lead them to gamble with their health coverage, which is why "regardless of the employee's age, nothing can replace the value of a personalized, one-on-one conversation" around benefits selection.

"It's important to have multiple contact points, but far and away we see the most success from one-on-one engagement, whether that's a person sitting across the lunchroom table or just being able to talk with someone on the phone," said Ryan-Reid. "The more personalized and customized the discussion is, the more impact it has."

Anticipate Confusion

One of the common mistakes that employees make every year is failing to adequately understand the cost of a health plan, and specifically the tradeoff between high premiums and low deductibles, Buckey said. A plan with a low deductible and high premiums "may not be right for healthier employees who don't expect to be heavy users of health care services. Conversely, lower premium plans with higher deductibles may not be right for someone who has a chronic condition and requires ongoing use of prescription medications."

Additionally, when health savings accounts (HSAs) are coupled with high-deductible plans, the cost calculation becomes more complicated. An added complication is that HSA basics remain widely misunderstood by employees.

"An HSA, especially with funds contributed by the employer, can alter that cost calculation between a traditional PPO [preferred provider organization] option and a high-deduction consumer-directed health plan," Buckey noted. "Many employees don't understand that it's not just about going for the 'cheapest' plan on a per paycheck basis or for the most comprehensive plan despite a higher premium; it's looking at the whole picture."

It helps to provide cost and benefit calculators, Ryan-Reid said, "and these are becoming integrated into benefit platforms, sometimes allowing employees to pull in their claims history from last year to help them select the right option."

The rise of voluntary benefits allows employees to customize their benefits package "to fit their own needs and what they feel they can spend," Ryan-Reid added. But that also can make open enrollment even more confusing, which again highlights the need for effective communication and education.

Use Multichannel Communications

"There's no such thing as too much communication," Ryan-Reid said. "No matter how many times you think you've shared something with employees, it takes a lot for the messages to get through."

A survey earlier this year by the nonprofit International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans revealed that employers believe:

  • Benefit plan participants do not open or read communications materials (80 percent of organizations reported this).
  • Participants don't understand the materials (49 percent).
  • Participants don't perceive value in their benefits (31 percent).

But organizations that have a multimedia approach are typically the most successful, Ryan-Reid noted, "whether this involves an e-mail campaign, a benefits booklet mailed to the home, an interactive platform on an intranet site, or posters in the hallways. Use multiple channels to make sure that employees are capturing the important messages."

"Having a strategy in place is tremendously helpful," Buckey said. "The sooner you can start communicating rather than waiting for enrollment, the better."

Set the stage by reminding employees that enrollment is coming up, Buckey advised. "Point out what decision-support tools will be available, and encourage them to do their homework" by taking a look at their personal situation.

Then Start All Over Again

"It shouldn't be one and done," Buckey said. "Once enrollment ends, start planning for the next year."

Added Ryan-Reid, "We have a practice of doing a town hall or sending out a survey after open enrollment, asking what was clear, what wasn't clear and what are you still concerned about?"

Employee responses may show that "the parts of the process we spend a lot of time and money on aren't being valued by employees," she said. "Everyone has precious few minutes in the day and precious few dollars to spend, so it helps to focus on what's going to drive the greatest engagement and satisfaction."

Related SHRM Articles:

At Open Enrollment, HR Departments of One Step Up, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Open Enrollment: Help Employees Envision Their Future, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Transparency, Decision Support Are Next Wave in Benefits Self-Service, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2016

SHRM Resource Page:

Guide to Benefits Open Enrollment Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

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