Singing the Open Enrollment Blues

We’re in the dog days of summer. Temperatures remain high, families are preparing for the start of the new school year, and businesses are gearing up for one of their most stressful seasons of the year–open enrollment. From October through November, employers present health insurance plans and other benefit options available to their employees for the next year.

What makes this so stressful? Employers must prepare employees to make complicated decisions about company benefits. Not only must employers communicate changes to current benefits in easily understood language, but they also must help employees understand their options to make informed decisions about the type of health plan that’s best for the employee–as there may be several plans to choose from–or, variations in a single plan. In addition to the required services that must be included in the health plan cost, many employers make available an array of voluntary benefits, such as critical care insurance, pet insurance, and student debt relief which employees can “buy up” to at additional out-of-pocket costs.

Some of the challenges facing corporate benefits managers responsible for a successful enrollment process include: reaching employees in remote locations; engaging employees who tend to wait until the last minute to enroll; cultivating knowledge about benefit plans, eligibility, and financial contributions; making employees aware of all the benefits that are offered, and encouraging employees to use these services appropriately. For example, some companies offer telemedicine at no charge, but employees’ use of this benefit is often low, even though it would save employees the co-pay.

For many employees, the stress level during open enrollment skyrockets. It’s the one time of the year that they are forced to think about their health needs for the coming year and make decisions about health benefits with little understanding of their options. This is often exacerbated when companies make changes to current year benefits, which happens often due to increasing healthcare costs.

Most employees have difficulty understanding pages and pages of benefits information and complicated explanations, often written in legalese and steeped in concepts and jargon that are commonplace to the experts, but make little sense to a layperson. It’s also hard for employees to think ahead about their own and family healthcare needs, and their risks of getting sick or injured during the next year. This makes health benefits decisions even more difficult. In fact, according to a recent Jellyvision survey, one in five employees regret their benefit choices later.

Employers are sensitive to employees’ decision-making challenges and look for ways to make the process less stressful including: improving communications, meeting employees where they are, keeping the information simple, making benefits guides more engaging and readable, explaining complicated changes in layman’s terms, putting the most urgent and important information about what’s new or changing first, providing real-life scenarios as examples of what to expect and displaying the cost of care and who pays what portion of the cost in simple charts. Self-service enrollment portals are becoming popular, and are especially useful for remote employees. Some companies schedule personal one-on-one meetings with as many employees as possible. Even though this requires a big investment of time and extra staff, it’s very effective for helping employees navigate through the choices available.

Despite employers’ concerted efforts to make open enrollment easier, the complicated choices still overwhelm many employees, as does the sticker shock of higher out-of-pocket costs for routine and critical care. Some workers avoid the process altogether by simply letting their current benefits continue by default, even if coverage, cost, or access have changed, and even when there are more suitable or less costly options available. To overcome this inertia, some companies are adopting an active enrollment approach, which forces employees to actively review and choose either their current default plan or another option.

Employers place a high value on their benefits investments, not only for the positive impact on employee health and productivity, but also for attracting and retaining talent. In fact, instead of cutting back, companies are becoming increasingly generous with employee benefits despite the higher costs.

As stressful as open enrollment seems to be for employees, they likewise place a high value on their benefits. and appreciate the contribution their company makes to the cost of employee health plans. (The average employer share is 73 percent, even though the requirement is only 50 percent according to Zenefits, a benefits consultant.)

Come December, when open enrollment season ends for most companies, employees are likely to change their tune from the blues to happy days are here again.

Dr. Marianne Fazen is the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health.

Posted in Expert Opinions.