Open Enrollment Self-Service Decision Tools on the Rise

Fewer workers get benefits enroll packets by mail

By Stephen Miller Dec 7, 2009

With employee benefit choices becoming more complex, a growing number of U.S. employers are providing self-service decision-making tools to workers during open enrollment season, according to a survey by consultancy Watson Wyatt. A majority of employers who offer these tools believe that they have led employees to make changes in their plan decisions.

According to the survey, 45 percent of companies offered employees self-service decision tools to assist them with their health care decisions during the year-end 2009 open enrollment season, and 56 percent plan to provide more for the year-end 2010 open enrollment season. The survey found that 50 percent saw an increase in the use of these tools in 2009 compared to a year earlier. Moreover, almost three-quarters (74 percent) of the employers that provide these tools say they believe that employees altered their plan decisions based on using them.

The Watson Wyatt survey was conducted in mid-November 2009 and includes responses from 349 U.S. employers.

Difficult Decisions

The greatest challenge employers cited during the year-end 2009 open enrollment period was employee understanding of new plan features:

39 percent of employers said this issue was moderately to extremely challenging.

32 percent said it was more challenging when compared to the previous year.

Approximately one in three employers (32 percent) considered explaining price changes to be moderately to extremely challenging.

26 percent said it was more challenging in 2009 than 2008.

“Most employers are at a point where they breeze through open enrollment. Increasingly, however, more are seizing the opportunity to help employees improve their own health and well-being,” says Richard Nicholas, senior technology consultant at Watson Wyatt. Self-service decision tools “can be an essential part of the process to move employees away from being passive participants in a company health plan,” he explains.For instance, “a medical cost analysis tool would help employees make more educated decisions by comparing out-of-pocket costs of their health plan choices."

Less Print, More Pixels

The survey found that one long-time practice—mailing printed open enrollment materials to employees' homes—is waning:

69 percent of employers mailed printed materials to employees’ homes during the year-end 2009 open enrollment season, down from 76 percent in 2008. However, nearly one in four (22 percent) intends to eliminate paper-based open enrollment communications in 2010.

A large majority (88 percent) made materials accessible on the company intranet or the Internet.

More than three-quarters (76 percent) used e-mail.

More than one-quarter (27 percent) used interactive media or multimedia such as podcasts, web videos and online chat forums.

“Just as technology has become an integral part of how employees communicate every day, employers have tapped into a wide range of technology applications to allow workers to make informed decisions about their benefits,” says Don Harrison, senior technology consultant at Watson Wyatt. “The combination of new communication media and self-service employee tools can help employers pave the way toward smoother open enrollment seasons in the future.”

Cool Tools

The nonprofit Council on Disability Awareness provides an online Personal Disability Quotient calculator that lets employees estimate their chances of being injured or becoming ill and not being able to earn income over an extended period of time.

There are many types of retirement tools online, including a Retirement Calculator provided by the Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority. The Social Security Administration's Retirement Estimator shows expected Social Security Income.

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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