This is the second article in our Open Enrollment Boot Camp series, in which we are featuring readers' advice for improving this perennial event. The first article focused on OE communications, and is available on our website at Here, we present some of the advice we received from brokers and providers on increasing enrollment in and satisfaction with voluntary benefits.

You'll find many more tips in a special PDF on our website, enrollment/voluntarytips.

Simplify, customize and integrate

Jim Gemus,vice president, product development, Prudential Group Insurance

With more companies trimming traditional benefit packages, voluntary benefits have emerged as an increasingly important tool for employee recruitment and morale. But employers need solid participation to make such offerings worthwhile and cost-effective, and that means making the enrollment process as smooth and engaging as possible. How do you achieve that goal? Here are some tips:

* Avoid information overload. Focus on one or two benefit plans in your overall package each year, not the whole range of options. You want to educate employees without overwhelming them during open enrollment periods. Some elements, such as life insurance, can be touted outside of regular enrollment periods to give the offering higher visibility during a less hectic time.

* One size doesn't fit all. Don't expect the same message to resonate for all employees, since they find themselves at a variety of life stages. Someone just starting out in a career will have different needs and priorities than a mature worker readying for retirement. New hires and employees going through significant life changes - marriage, divorce, the birth of a child - may have concerns that don't fit neatly into regular enrollment periods.

* Plan ahead. Companies that command the best participation in voluntary benefit programs are those that view the process as a long-term proposition. Map out employee education initiatives as a multiyear program, rather than a contained cycle that begins and ends with open enrollment. And remember, a key part of successful planning is the smart and creative use of data. Analyzing current participation trends will help you identify and close gaps in coverage.

* An integrated approach saves time and money. Make it easy on your workers and easy on yourself with smarter workflows. If you have online enrollment, make sure that required forms, such as evidence of insurability, are integrated into the process.

* Find the right partner. Many employers are looking to reduce their administrative burden when it comes to benefit plans. Outsourcing voluntary benefit programs can save money and give employees access to top-notch expertise. But you have to choose your partner wisely. Do they have the capability to provide robust call center support? Can they deliver communications in a way that will hit home with your workers? Will they put you in the best position to succeed?


Look to your broker during and after OE Joe Wieser, vice president, product development and enrollment services, AlwaysCare Benefits, Baton Rouge, La.

Benefits enrollment is a stressful time, especially when you're enrolling many employees in multiple products. But if you follow the guidelines below, open enrollment won't feel like "open season" on your sanity this year.

Ask your broker or consultant for one enrollment form or online platform for all products offered. Your carrier's online portal can make enrollment a breeze. It can also make ongoing administration simple, with self-service tools to add new hires, process terms and allow employees themselves to print ID cards and find providers 24/7.

Also ask your carrier to provide marketing materials to explain the need for benefits. A benefits representative should help you answer your employees' questions as well as assist with administrative tasks.

An easier open enrollment shouldn't end after the business is submitted. It's not a common practice in the insurance industry, but reviewing a trial bill can allow you the opportunity to catch and correct enrollment errors like an incorrect premium rate or coverage type before your first bill is actually generated.


Know what your workers want Joe Willingham,vice president of sales, west region, Colonial Life

Employees want a benefits program that gives them the choice to pick what's right for their lifestyle and family situation. An Eastbridge Consulting survey showed 88% of employees say choice is important or extremely important. But employers may be missing opportunities to offer valuable coverage workers say they'll want in the near future. A Harris Interactive poll conducted for Colonial Life asked full-time workers with benefits what products they thought would be important to them five years from now. Life, disability, critical illness, accident and cancer coverage all received high marks. When Employee Benefit News asked some of its readers the same question, they correctly gauged employees' high interest in life and disability insurance, but far underestimated their workers' desire for the other types of coverage.


Tailor offerings to work status Dorothy Miraglia, principal, strategic benefit solutions, AlphaStaff, Inc.

If the employer has a predominantly full-time employee workforce, focus on protecting them financially:

* Disability insurance provides protection against either long-term or short-term lost income. If the employee is the primary wage earner, this supplies assistance if they are out of work for an extended period of time.

* Additional voluntary life insurance plans allow employers to provide life insurance to eligible employees at better rates, all at no cost to the employer.

* Auto, home and renters insurance provides employees multiple choices and added savings on insurance through their employer.

If the employer has a workforce that is predominantly part time/seasonal, focus on programs that are convenient, yet low-cost:

* Limited health and accident programs can provide a valuable benefit in terms of coverage for doctor office visits and prescription drugs, as well as valuable hospital-based benefits for services such as maternity or outpatient surgery.

* Dental discount programs are beneficial because it is a helpful way to offset the costs of dental care through a negotiated discount arrangement.

* Consumer purchasing or discount programs are attractive offerings since they provide an option for employees to pay over time for consumer products through payroll deduction or provide a discount which would normally not be available.


Close the life insurance gender gap


Stephen L. Pontecorvo,vice president, group life Products, MetLife

In preparation for open enrollment season, consider whether your communication strategy to your female employees is robust enough to engage them fully in the group life plan.

According to research collected in connection with MetLife's 9th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, this is an important area for consideration since women are participating in group life insurance plans at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts, even though they worry more about negative financial impacts of inadequate protection. Similarly, MetLife's research shows that working women who have life insurance are generally insured for only twice their household income compared to men, who have almost three times their household income in coverage.

Only 34% of working women surveyed by MetLife strongly agree that their employer's benefits communications effectively educate them on their benefit options, highlighting a vast opportunity for improvement. Women surveyed for the MetLife study indicated some areas where progress could be made:

* 43% would like access to benefits information on the Internet.

* 39% would like information tailored to their life events and life stages.

* 39% would like access to a person who can tell them about their benefits.

* 30% want more frequent communication about their benefits.

MetLife's research also shows that women have preferences for how they would like to receive information. Case studies could be an effective way to impart information. Messaging research conducted by MetLife shows some marked differences with women. For example, statements about ease and affordability/cost resonate as do certain emotional factors like having confidence knowing one has the right amount of insurance.


Employer engagement boosts employee enrollment Shawn V. Austin,senior vice president, employee benefits, Chartis

These three types of employer support will help make your voluntary benefits enrollment a success:

1. Employer contribution. While employer contribution is optional, enrollment is higher when a portion of or all of the cost is covered by the employer.

2. Employer sponsorship. When employers consistently display a commitment to a healthy, talented workforce, it's likely that employees will take heed of employee benefits options that are sponsored by their organization. With employer support, employees can feel confident that their organization is providing the best options available to them.

3. Payroll deduction capability. Employers that are willing to payroll deduct the monthly premiums provide a convenient, hassle-free way for their employees to purchase coverage. Likewise, brokers should consider offering flexible billing options for clients such as debit or credit cards, or list billing.


Middle managers are the secret to OE success

Mark Moore,head of workplace marketing & enrollment services, Aetna Voluntary Plans

Typically, communications during open enrollment are aimed conveying the "benefit of benefits" to the end user - the employee. But targeting managers can be a key to success.

Carriers should work directly with managers to help them understand the benefits package being offered. The plan should include strategies such as holding conference calls to explain the plans, providing communications to distribute to employees and - perhaps most importantly - following up with phone calls to ensure managers have everything they need to conduct enrollment. The goal is not to create a new group of insurance sales people, but to help managers understand how benefits work so they can pass that knowledge to their employees.

One important aspect of this "middle management" strategy is to point out how benefits can help managers with one of their problems - turnover. Benefits can be a powerful recruiting and retention tool. By getting managers to see how benefits can help them solve one of their challenges, you can create powerful allies for open enrollment.


'MEEF' makes for better OE meetings

Jeff Eilers,regional vice president, group benefit services, Mutual of Omaha

In the past 20 years, I've conducted thousands of benefit meetings and enrolled hundreds of thousands of employees. I've come to the conclusion that you can achieve success in benefits communication if you employ four basic rules:

1. Make it mandatory. This is perhaps the key ingredient in any successful benefit communication. Making meetings mandatory, and making everyone turn in paperwork, reduces the employer's exposure to miscommunication or the "I didn't know we had those benefits" comments. Meetings give the employee an opportunity to speak directly with company reps, HR staff or the broker and allow them a dedicated time to fill out paperwork and receive assistance from the experts. Meetings also help HR representatives collect the forms in a timely manner and confirm proper benefits were chosen.

2. Make it educational. Presenters should have a well-rehearsed presentation that includes good explanations of the insurance terms, appropriate visuals and simple enrollment kits. Time should also be available for questions.

3. Make it easy. Insurance materials can be confusing. Keep materials pertinent to what is being communicated and customize as much as you can. I like to use forms that only contain the benefits being discussed and pre-fill as much employee information onto the enrollment form as possible.

By pre-populating enrollment materials, employees understand the costs as they pertain to them, in addition to the benefits they receive. This helps drive good participation and gives employees the sense that the employer is really organized. It also helps with the installation of the case.

4. Make it fun. Small tchotchkes are nice, but bigger ticket items (i.e., gift cards, iPods, DVD players) really create excitement. To make the meeting interactive, give gifts to employees who answer questions about the benefits. Feed them lunch or a snack. It may sound simple, but these small gestures go a long way in helping people become more comfortable with insurance and insurance representatives.


June 15: EBN's 2011 Preparing for Open Enrollment series concludes with benefits practitioners' tips for when and how to roll out an effective wellness program.

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