6 ways COVID-19 is changing open enrollment this year

COVID-19 certainly changed open enrollment last year–it was virtual for most employers, for one thing–and changes to the annual process are still occurring as the pandemic continues.

From the use of technology to employees taking a more detailed look at their benefits because of the Delta variant, here is how OE is different this year.

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It’s all about the technology. Given that many employees are still working remotely as a result of the pandemic, enrollment options are still trending toward virtual. Some employers are embracing a hybrid approach and also embracing onsite, in-person support, says Sarah Oliver, head of enrollment at Guardian Life, but “technology is leading the way and is the overarching theme of open enrollment for 2020 and 2021.”

“We saw an incredible push and mass transition to benefits administration platforms for our employer clients. A lot of companies were moving toward integrating benefits technology, but the pandemic accelerated this,” she says, noting that Guardian research finds that seven in 10 employees enrolled digitally last year. “The major mission now is to ensure that employees making benefits decisions use technology supported with decision-making tools. These take the form of a robust communication strategy, AI decision-support tools and virtual one-on-one meetings with licensed benefits experts. All of these support tools can be digital and reach a workforce in the office or remote.”

Employees are taking a harder look at what their employer offers–and getting more confident in the process. Nothing makes employee benefits more important than a pandemic. As COVID-19 threatened most aspects of employees’ lives–from their physical health to their financial security and mental health–employees are increasingly aware of the importance of their benefit offerings, experts say. Research from Haven Life, which surveyed more than 1,000 full-time employees, discovers that the pandemic continues to play a big role in selections, finding that COVID-19 remains both a concern and an influential factor in benefit selections. Among all employees, 42% said the pandemic will have an impact on their benefits selection this year, while 45% said the Delta variant and other emerging strands, in particular, will impact what they choose.

Related: Why help is essential as Delta worsens employee mental health

Similarly, United Healthcare finds that 44% of employees say COVID-19 influenced, or will influence, their preferred health plan, with 16% interested in an option with lower out-of-pocket costs; 13% looking for more wellbeing programs or resources; 8% seeking more comprehensive or richer benefits; and 8% wanting a national health plan instead of a regional one. “With access to health benefits and care more important than ever amid COVID-19, [our research] indicates growing confidence among some Americans in making more informed benefits decisions during open enrollment,” says Rebecca Madsen, chief consumer officer of UnitedHealthcare.

Mental health is top of mind. The pandemic has severely impacted mental health, with many workers dealing with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout and more. In terms of the specific benefits that employees were looking for during this year’s open enrollment, “mental health played an outsized role,” says Ben Newland, head of product, direct to consumer, at Haven Life. He adds that 74% of employees said mental health would impact their benefits selection this year, whether in terms of the policies purchased or limits desired. Employees also are more aware of employee assistance programs, digital apps and other help–making enrollment a good time for employers to communicate those offerings.

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Related: ‘We have a crisis’: HR’s mandate on mental health

More dependents are covered–and involved. Employers are expanding enrollment eligibility for their workforce due to employee economic hardships and to stay competitive in a tight labor market, Oliver says. That means employers have more work to do in both educating employees and their families about options, as well as actually enrolling them.

There’s a renewed focus on voluntary products. Now that employees have seen the effects of the pandemic for themselves and their families, more are digging into benefits beyond medical, particularly voluntary benefits such as life insurance and hospital indemnity insurance, Oliver says. Financial wellness options and retirement contributions are another consideration employees are increasingly looking at.

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It’s increasing the importance of employer communication. Given the importance of benefits to employees during the ongoing pandemic, HR and benefits leaders are–and should be–stepping up in their efforts to ensure employees have frequent and adequate information about benefits options. Not only should they explain and promote benefits that employees select during enrollment, like healthcare, disability insurance and life insurance, but they should tout important benefits–even ones employees don’t need to select. Those include offerings like mental health coverage, caregiving support and financial wellness programs–all benefits a growing number of employers are turning to. While employees don’t have to enroll in many of those offerings, enrollment is a good time for employees to be reminded of them. “Benefits education is more important than ever before,” Oliver says.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.