Despite the drive to make all things digital during the 2010 open enrollment season, employers didn’t turn away from good-old fashioned face-to-face meetings. Also, complying with the first phase of the health law was a breeze.

According to a survey by Towers Watson, more employers relied on e-mail communication to educate workers on benefits options during 2010 open enrollment.  Eighty-four percent of respondents utilized e-mail campaigns last year, compared to 76% in 2009.

The survey findings suggest that there was more buy-in on leveraging online strategies during open enrollment. For example, one-third of employers used podcasts, web-based videos or online chats to communicate enrollment information. In 2009, only 27% tapped into those tools.

Conducting open enrollment in a digital environment, however, didn’t stamp out the old-school approach of face-to-face meetings. The percentage of employers that held group sessions with workers jumped from 53% in 2009 to 60% in 2010. Conversations with HR representatives also increased from 50% to 58%.

Complying with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was easy or somewhat easy for 79% of employers, the survey found. Only 19% reported implementing the early provisions was somewhat difficult, while just 2% said that it was difficult. Employers noted that much of the communication centered on dependent coverage for those under the age of 26.

"Employers are taking advantage of both the technology and decision support tools available to them to make the open enrollment process as efficient as possible. At the same time, they are arming their employees with information needed to make educated decisions about their benefits for the coming year," says Jeri Stepman, national practice leader for health and welfare outsourcing at Towers Watson.

The survey was conducted in December and based on responses from 209 U.S. employers.

Other key findings include:

  • Less than one in 10 employees (9%) reported using paper-based enrollment last year, a decline from 14% in 2009.
  • Nearly one out of three respondents (32%) reported their greatest challenge during this year’s open enrollment was employee understanding of new plan features.
  • Slightly fewer (29%) said handling an increased number of service center calls was their most challenging issue, followed by explaining price changes (26%).
  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents plan to increase their communication efforts with employees, while nearly one-half (47%) plan to make a change to their health plan design. Forty-four percent plan to provide more self-service capabilities to employees.
  • Nearly six in 10 plan sponsors (57%) provided decision support tools for participants. However, dissatisfaction with these tools increased last year.
  • More than eight in 10 respondents (83%) do not integrate claim data with their tools.
  • The volume of merger and acquisition activity among benefits outsourcing vendors was high in 2010. Close to one-half (44%) of large employers (companies with 15,000 or more participants) surveyed use vendors affected by merger activity.

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