For this year's Preparing for Open Enrollment series, EBN asked you, our readers, to give us your advice for improving this perennial event. Here is the first of three articles featuring your responses, which deals with enrollment communications.

Below are submissions from HR/benefits practitioners telling what's worked for them. These are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Many more are available in a PDF.  You'll find common themes reflecting time-tested wisdom along with fresh thinking to incorporate in your 2011 enrollment communications strategy. Our sincere thanks to all who responded.



The key to running a successful open enrollment is to plan ahead, clearly communicate plan design and changes, and provide the information in an easy-to-read format.

No one wants to read the complicated and confusing SPDs. Adding supplemental information sheets that explain the carrier communications in layman's terms makes it easier for members to review. One way we've done this is through pre-open-enrollment newsletters. The newsletters highlight the changes in plan design that will most affect the members, so they can formulate their questions prior to the meetings. Keeping the newsletters short and grouped by benefit type (i.e., medical, dental, vision, voluntary benefits) prevents employees from getting overwhelmed or distracted by information that may not apply to them. We've done both electronic and hard copy. When we are in a time crunch, we go with electronic; it is a good way to keep the newsletter shorter, too.

Also, packaging the open enrollment information into one booklet allows employees to get through it more quickly and with less confusion. The enrollment booklets ensure that information isn't lost and that the members can easily flip from one benefit type to the next. I always include a medical plan comparison chart outlining the differences between the various plan designs. We highlight only the most highly utilized benefit types to keep the information to a manageable level.

Erin Prutt, Phr, Director Of Human Resources, Banker Lopez Gassler P.A., Tampa, Fla.



Our organization has approximately 2,400 domestic employees and 200 international employees. We have learned that we need to provide a lot of education in different forms to meet the needs of our multigenerational workforce.

We mail out open-enrollment-themed postcards and newsletters, and send instant messages and emails. We are looking into SMS texting to remind employees of deadlines, e.g., "Text benefits to XYZ and get all the latest and greatest open enrollment news!" We did some communication out on our company's Yammer site. I anticipate next year we will be using a lot more social media in our communications.

Christine Kopp, Phr, Corporate People Services Generalist, Accent Marketing Services, Llc, Jeffersonville, Ind.



Our company takes a multifaceted approach to benefits communications, beginning with a newsletter issued approximately one month prior to the beginning of the enrollment period. The newsletter contains information on the open enrollment period, plan changes, reminders and rate information, and is posted on our website, emailed to associates and mailed to associates' homes.

At the same time the benefits newsletter is issued, we unveil our benefits website for the next plan year. This is an Internet site, allowing access from anywhere. It contains all information related to our plans, including plan summaries, rates, summary plan descriptions, links to provider directories and vendor contact information, allowing associates and their partners to review the plans in detail.

Since we cannot hold benefits meetings at all of our locations, we utilize "Dial and Learn" sessions - a combination of a visual piece (PowerPoint presentation), audio (presented by a member of our corporate benefits department) and question-and-answer time. These sessions provide an overview of the benefits offered and any changes that are occurring, and offer the chance to ask questions.

Lastly, open enrollment reminders are continuously supplied through intranet postings, emails, postings on our HRIS system and a postcard mailed to associates' homes.

Kristi Esche, Benefits Analyst, Old National Bancorp, Evansville, Ind.



The best thing we did was contract with Jellyvision to offer a personalized benefits enrollment experience for our employees this past open enrollment.

We were introducing major changes in the form of a new higher-deductible medical option and tying healthy behaviors into the employees' costs. We analyzed our 2009 enrollment and observed that many employees were enrolled in a copay option that was costing them more than the benefits they were receiving. Jellyvision's "David, Your Benefits Counselor" tool enabled employees to model their expected medical expenses versus their contributions and more accurately select the option that met their needs. We were able to shift 10% of our population out of the copay options as a result. We plan to use "David" for 2011 as well.

Gloria W. Dana, Avp, Hr Services, Norfolk Southern Corporation, Norfolk, Va.



Itron is a technology provider to the global energy and utility industries. Going into open enrollment in 2010, our manufacturing locations were running flat out 24/7 trying to get orders out the door. Pulling employees from the manufacturing floor for an hour was going to be too disruptive to the business, so alternative methods were necessary. Our software, engineering and professional services staff was equally stretched on a variety of projects and installations.

We felt that print and email messaging wasn't going to be sufficient. We had introduced a spousal surcharge, which naturally resulted in plenty of questions, and we had premium changes, plus a couple of vendor changes and a new wellness program component to communicate. On top of that, we also did an electronic beneficiary designation campaign and had to communicate the pertinent health care reform-related changes.

We relied on our local HR business partners to talk up the changes at a local level, often using opportunities like 10-minute "Tool Box Talks" to update employees on the key changes and to assist with the online enrollment process, which for most employees who only use the system once a year can be daunting. We also used for the first time a slide deck with recorded voice-over that talked to the points on the slides that was then played on monitors in our break and lunch rooms and posted on our intranet. The presentation was just 15 minutes and hit the highlights of what employees needed to think about.

We supplemented this with our traditional methods of open enrollment communication, namely a comprehensive printed benefits guide supplemented with weekly Benefit FYI emails to reinforce the key points.

We saved thousands on travel costs by not doing face-to-face presentations. More importantly, we managed not to disrupt the business operations too much, although employees still had to find time to make their online benefit elections.

Darren Rieger, Director Of Benefits, Itron, Inc., Liberty Lake, Wash.



Our open enrollment communication starts very early (September) with reminding associates to be sure to have their user name and passwords for the enrollment site with the third-party administrator we have used over the last six years. Postcards are sent to all associates' homes to remind them and their families of needed information and that enrollment will begin soon.

Dena Engstrom, Associate Vp And Manager, Employee Benefits, Davidson Companies, Great Falls, Mont.



Getting the word out via webinars, sophisticated open enrollment systems and email is great, but our inboxes are starting to get saturated with too many links and information that "we'll get to later."

How many employees have claimed to have never received that companywide e-mail that you sent? Emails tend to cause employees' eyes to glaze over, particularly when they just want to work on what they know.

If your company is small enough or you have enough onsite HR reps to do the old-fashioned walk around to talk up open enrollment and changes to your benefit plans for the coming year, nothing compares to it.

The first year I visited all of our locations and visited each cubicle, I saw an increase in our flexible spending accounts of over 20%. This is because employees would bring up questions and situations when I talked to them one on one, and that would open the door to discuss why they weren't using an FSA.

My mouth always drops when I hear about companies that just hand out a packet of information to employees and expect them to translate it on their own. Employees will make wrong decisions, and those decisions can negatively affect the business as well.

If employees understand what is being offered to them, job satisfaction increases. If they have a person to go to with questions, instead of an 800 number, the HR department gains the trust of the employee. We can be more than just the face of layoffs and policy enforcement. An in-person chat that shows that you are concerned with their health and financial well-being illustrates the positive side of HR.

Heather Ritter, Human Resources Manager, Paddock Publications, Inc., Arlington Heights, Ill.



While health and welfare carriers and 401(k) vendors have developed great websites to access information about plan provisions, coverage levels, wellness benefits and plan assets, a relatively small proportion of employees regularly visit those sites.

With this in mind, we decided to do an educational "Web Day" associated with annual open enrollment. To provide information on the "webs" of our various vendors, we invited their representatives in to do demonstrations and actually get employees up and running on their respective websites. Concurrently, open enrollment information was available for plan participants.

The event itself had a "Spiderman" theme with our a announcement posters "catching various Web addresses" in a virtual web. With the Web-related theme, we recycled some Halloween decorations and also gave away Spiderman t-shirts as door prizes to those who attended presentations and tried websites. The cost was really minimal compared to the turnout we had.

Kurt Ronsen, Director Of Compensation And Benefits, North America, Sunrise Medical, Longmont, Colo.



The City of Austin takes a hands-on approach in educating and assisting its more than 11,000 full-time employees with benefits selection during the annual enrollment period and with benefits changes throughout the year. Effective communication is critical, especially since about half of the workforce lacks computer access.

The human resources department enlists and trains enrollment coordinators at worksites across the organization. These individuals serve as the point of contact for employees in city departments in terms of distributing materials, scheduling presentations and collecting documentation.

Employees are offered three ways to participate: online, telephone and paper. The online option is available 24/7, and the telephone system features English and Spanish. Pay and benefits fliers are distributed in July (proposed) and September (approved). The July flier gives employees time to become familiar with plan design changes well before the changes go into effect. Coverage information statements are distributed to employees prior to open enrollment, indicating dependents enrolled and benefits selected for the current year, along with rates for the coming year. Confirmation statements are mailed to home addresses as employees participate in enrollment.

Benefits presentations are scheduled by enrollment coordinators at numerous city worksites prior to the enrollment period. To accommodate varying work schedules, multiple presentations may be offered at the same site. These events include a presentation by an HR staff member and by representatives from the various benefits plans. The presentations are recorded and made available on DVD during the entire open enrollment period.

Employees can go online and view only the portion of the presentation about which they have questions. Employees and spouses can view the presentations at home or at the worksite. Department coordinators frequently use the DVD at benefits meetings, in conjunction with providing enrollment assistance to employees. Using video-on-demand, the city was able to reduce the number of benefits presentations from 100 in 2009 to 57 in 2010. In addition, individual benefits segments from the DVD are available year-round on the city's internal website, significantly reducing the number of customer service calls.

Karen Haywood, Employee Benefits Division Manager, City Of Austin, Austin, Texas



Employers will have an impact on employees' behavior if they include practical solutions. Simply offering a traditional plan and HSA/high deductible side by side isn't enough. Go through the math and include creative solutions, such as the one-time IRA distribution to prefund an HSA. For retirement plan eligibility, include the summary plan description, enrollment forms and the IRS Publication on Saver's Tax Credit (IRS Pub. 4703) to entice lower-wage earners to take advantage of IRS incentives with the 401(k) plan. A call to action is more effective when it's accompanied by solutions for common objections.

Linda Harlow, Qka, Retirement Plan Consultant, Burke & Schindler Pll, Cincinnati, Ohio



At the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit environmental organization, the first open enrollment communications improvement I made was to consolidate the numerous pieces of paper and booklets previously distributed into a comprehensive document highlighting each benefit plan on one or two pages. Using pictures was definitely a way to make it appealing to readers. This document was supplemented by a two-page highlights memo outlining the changes for the new plan year.

Of course, we still have to provide the required summary plan descriptions, but now those are all distributed by email just once a year and housed on an online benefit portal, obtained at no cost through our benefits broker. This portal is accessible 24 hours a day and contains wellness tools, HR information, all forms, links, policy numbers and phone numbers of all our plans. Our benefits portal link is shared on all other organizationwide systems, such as the HRIS database and intranet, which employees access often.

A critical piece of making sure employees are aware of the benefits available to them is to provide wallet cards - not just for medical, dental and FSA debit card coverage. We provide wallet cards for vision, identity theft, emergency assistance, health advocate, employee assistance program and medical benefits while traveling abroad. We even provide a refrigerator magnet with the emergency phone number to call when in doubt if the office is open for business.

Awareness is key to utilization. The connection between the office and one's personal life through their wallet and refrigerator is important.

Randi A. Weingarten,SPHR, CEBS, CCP, Manager, Global Benefits & Compensation, The Rainforest Alliance, New York, N.Y.



At Papa John's, one of our core values is "constant improvement." We never stop trying to surpass our previous best. When it comes to open enrollment, we have definitely taken that value to heart.

Over the years, we have been challenged to effectively reach a benefits-eligible population of up to 2,500 team members scattered among hundreds of locations. Many lack computers or Internet access and, in some cases, there are language barriers. We have gone from paper enrollment forms, marathon sessions of manual data entry, large volumes of phone calls and assembling voluminous open enrollment packets to online/call-center enrollment with automated HRIS uploads and one comprehensive online benefits handbook.

We have saved considerable time and money preparing for and executing open enrollment, not only for our team, but companywide. At the same time, we have kept our focus on maintaining good, clear communication. But we didn't get there overnight.

We first shifted from paper enrollment to partnering with a voluntary benefits company that conducted one-on-one enrollment sessions. This step enabled us to improve communication and gather data electronically, which could be uploaded into our HRIS system. Although this was an improvement, it required a considerable amount of coordination.

From there, we worked with our voluntary benefits company to utilize their online enrollment system and multilingual call center services. We added kiosks in some locations and directed members without Internet access at work or home to the call center. This has proven to be an effective and efficient process.

We also transitioned from the massive project of assembling and distributing open enrollment packets in-house, to utilizing a fulfillment center to assemble and distribute packets, to developing a comprehensive online benefits handbook that incorporates contact information, benefit plan options with descriptions and summaries, required notices and even a benefits glossary. We worked with a local communications company to develop an online handbook that is easy to update and maintain on our intranet. This has saved not only time, but also significant print and distribution costs.

Each year, we debrief and re-evaluate our processes, looking for ways to utilize changing technologies and carrier and vendor partner tools and resources. We know new processes are always developing, and we diligently look for those opportunities. At the end of open enrollment each year, we take a deep sigh, thankful for the successful outcome, and know that over the next year, we'll identify ways to make the next open enrollment even better.

Brenda Miles, SPHR, CEBS, Senior Benefits Manager, Papa John's International, Inc., Louisville, KY.


Next month: EBN's Preparing for Open Enrollment series features benefits' practitioners' first-hand advice for rolling out voluntary benefits.

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