When government officials in Orange County, Fla. decided to move to a consumer-driven health plan last fall, they knew they would have to approach communications in a new way. While the county has 6,500 employees, its health plan covers approximately 19,000 lives, including dependents and employees at a few other government agencies.

Employees come from all walks of life and serve the county in wide-ranging capacities - from road maintenance crews to jail workers, paramedics to engineers - so the challenge always has been to craft a diversified communications plan that reaches everyone.

"For the person who works in an office and has easy access to everything, some of the communication might be a little overkill," says Jackie Walker, benefits analyst with Orange County government. "But we have to do that in order to reach everyone."

Under its old HMO plan, the county followed a typical communications model, with HR staff conducting a traveling roadshow of benefits presentations during open enrollment. The shift to the CDHP with a health spending account and a high deductible was a huge one for employees, and the benefits team decided that communications for the plan needed to be groundbreaking as well.

Thus, the county developed an hour-long video to walk employees through the changes. Walker and her team worked with Orange TV, the county's 24-hour access channel that offers programming produced by city, county, state and federal agencies and their employees.

"We had two anchors at an anchor desk and someone on a green screen we would go to who would break things down for us," explains Walker.

Using the analogy of a highway, the animated video showed people travelling in a car along the health care highway, paying for expenses until they meet their deductible and then moving on to the next leg of their trip.

"Everything was very graphic and easy to follow," Walker says. "Because for our employees - and even for us in HR - it was a brand new concept, so we had to really learn. As we learned about it, we decided we needed some kind of graphic symbol to really illustrate what would happen so people could connect with it."

The video showed real-dollar amounts and real claims to show how much employees potentially would be charged to illustrate how the CDHP and HSA would work.

Copies of the video were distributed to all HR representatives across the county, who gathered employees together to watch. About a month later, representatives from United Healthcare, the county's health plan provider, conducted sessions to give employees additional information and answer any questions.

The video was well-received by HR staff, who found it simple and easy to understand. "It was done for them, and they just had to answer the questions [after]," says Walker. "So, it was very helpful from a process standpoint. As far as employees understanding and grasping it, that's still to be determined. But I think that since it was the first wave of what we did, it really set the stage."

The HR department also produces a three-to-five minute video called "HR in the Loop" every two weeks. The series has focused mostly on the changes to the county's health care plan, covering such topics as health tips, how to be a health care consumer, what is preventive care and how it's covered. The videos are distributed through email blasts and posted on the Web and intranet.

"And for our blue-collar staff who don't sit at a computer, we ask the field HR reps to bring them in on payday, Friday, and show them the clip while they're doing their shift briefing," says Walker.

Each episode of "HR in the Loop" averages about 1,500 to 2,000 hits, which Walker is pleased with, considering the series has been running for about a year.

Whether launching a CDHP or communicating benefits in general, Walker has the following advice:

1. Vary your communication message. "You have to have something for everyone. You have to diversify your offerings. What works for one person isn't going to work for another, and that's something we keep adding to. We're actually going to try and create an online course that has some integrated video and slides that people can watch," she says.

2. Be adaptable. "You have to really listen to your employees, find out what they're grasping, what are the recurring themes, what are you hearing a lot, and we try to tackle those in a few different fashions," Walker says. Also, be ready to change your messages, because "just because you lay out your strategy at the beginning of the open enrollment season, that doesn't mean that's the strategy you're going to need to stick with."

3. Communicate consistently. "With a change like this, communication really has to be ongoing," says Jennifer Addleman, senior benefits analyst, with Orange County government. "A lot of employees may think they understand but until they start to use the plan, that's when a lot of the questions come. Keep giving them opportunities to have those questions answered."

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