How to Optimize Open Enrollment for Workers

Empowering employees to make smart healthcare choices is good for them and the business.
By: | October 16, 2018 • 3 min read
open enrollment

Administrators of employer-sponsored healthcare programs face myriad challenges these days, from the rising cost of medications to the fluctuating status of the Affordable Care Act and state healthcare exchanges. As we head into the 2019 open enrollment season, it’s clear that these issues will continue to impact every type and rank of employee in the coming year.

To that end, I’ve outlined several key trends in open enrollment that frazzled HR leaders should explore before enrollment season begins. If it’s too late to make changes to your program this year, use these key points as a basis for measuring and evaluating current programs so you can begin planning for a more engaging, transparent and streamlined process next year.

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You don’t have to take it all on yourself.

Employers are realizing that as great as some decision support and health advocacy tools may be, attempts to make employees better healthcare consumers have been only marginally effective.  High-performing (aka narrow) networks may be a viable solution as they enable better rates negotiated with the carriers and providers while reducing waste, errors and unnecessary costs. It’s the steerage option, but plan designs can provide incentives for employees to elect these plans and networks. In turn, the HPNs can provide:

  • more concierge-like service;
  • better coordinated care between providers for high-cost claimants—where much of runaway costs reside; and
  • support to ensure compliance with treatment protocols—for chronic conditions such as diabetes, CAD, COPD, etc.

In turn, these plans have the potential for shaving points off healthcare cost trend.

But it’s vital that communication strategies help reduce fears of reduced network choices (avoiding bad memories of restrictive HMO networks) while increasing confidence in the ability of the HPNs to drive results that actually enhance care while also reducing costs.

The best strategy is to provide easy-to-understand examples and scenarios that represent typical situations based on your company’s demographics and employee personas.

Use all the channels you have.

Education and engagement need to be done through a variety of channels to address the specific needs and preferences of demographic groups. Employees need to compare their options based on anticipated needs to look at both premiums (per paycheck costs) and out-of-pocket costs (deductible, copays, coinsurance), as well as employer-provided HSA contributions and incentives. The premium doesn’t tell the whole story—some people over-insure themselves by paying a higher premium for coverage that they may not use because they fear a higher deductible and out-of-pocket maximum.

Cost-comparison tools, interactive personalized assessment tools, microsites that are mobile-optimized with clear, consistent messaging, and extremely brief interactive videos make the message relevant to each individual.

Remember too that your company portal is both a useful tool in ensuring a personalized message to the employee, and a way for you to collect aggregated data about your employees’ interests, needs, action or inaction, and the user experience.

Don’t try to hit all the bases.

Trying to communicate too much information at one time tends to obscure the key message. Focus only on providing information needed to make effective enrollment decisions and use other points during the year to educate about broader topics like wellness.

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A common failure is going paperless and forgetting that you really need to drive employees to resources to get them to pay attention. There may be very robust online content and resources but a very low rate of use of that valuable information. Remember that spouses at home often may be making the majority of the healthcare decisions for a family or, at the very least, for themselves. So going too far with the paperless approach can miss getting the message—and the needed information—to those key stakeholders.

Don’t fear transparency.

It’s intriguing to me that some employers are wary about communicating their level of cost-sharing with employees and how it benchmarks against peer companies. Employees often assume they are paying a far larger share than they are. There are other ways of being transparent about cost-sharing beyond the employer-employee split. For instance, we created an infographic for a client to explain the concept of self-insurance and are using it in an ongoing educational series with fact sheets and videos, getting across the idea that the decisions each of us make about our health and informed healthcare purchasing affect the costs in our individual as well as collective pockets.

The bottom line is that helping employees get smart about how they use healthcare and choose insurance options will save your company money. That’s not as callous as it sounds. If employers can’t find more and better ways to control healthcare and benefits costs, they’ll simply have to shift more of the burden to employees. Healthcare access is onerous enough. No one wants to make it harder or deprive workers of needed care. Healthy, satisfied, financially stable workers are better for business, productivity and the overall economy. Commit to exploring these key trends and making meaningful improvements to open enrollment in 2019 and beyond.

Betsy Woods Brooks is in the engagement practice at Buck, an integrated HR consulting, benefits administration and technology services firm. She has provided guidance to Fortune 500 companies in the entertainment, financial services, publishing, manufacturing, pharmaceutical and utility industries. Emails comments and questions about this story to [email protected]

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