Benefits managers are just months away from what may prove the most challenging open enrollment season of their careers. For some, a large number of employees who never before qualified for group health insurance now might. For others, a move to a private exchange must be handled with the delicacy of a diamond cutter. For all, proper open enrollment communications strategy and execution will be paramount.

Dani McCauley, senior vice president of marketing at Univers, discussed with EBN steps employers should be taking leading up to enrollment season this fall.


What's different this year with open enrollment?

The biggest thing that has changed this year is that employers are recognizing that the [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] regulations are going to require them to educate their employees in ways they never have had to previously because now there's an incentive with the addition of exchanges in 2014, and ... employers need their employees to understand how it all works. Previously, employees understood benefits when they got sick. Now, there's a financial incentive for companies to make sure employees understand what they elect.



How do employers incorporate this with the general shift toward consumer-driven health plans?

[Employers need] a strategy that provides consistent, ongoing messages to employees throughout the year - not only externally pushed messages, but ways that employees can continue to have conversations with HR with benefits-related content - that really focuses on wellness and the role that an employee can have in keeping health costs down.

It's one thing to say [to employees], "You need to pick the health risk assessment program versus the PTO, here's why, and here's how that will save you money." It's another thing, in the middle of the year, when somebody needs an MRI, to [help workers] understand why they should have a say in where to get an MRI. That's a totally different, more evolved conversation, and it can't happen once a year. Our experience has been that employees can take in only about 20 minutes of material on benefits at a time before you have diminishing returns. And on top of that, when you go into a group setting, 5% to 10% of the conversation is going to be relevant to that employees' particular situation.



So, what are some best practices to avoid problems with open enrollment communication?

One thing that we're always looking at it is the demographics of employees. We want to make sure we have a multisensory approach because one demographic is going to learn and/or respond to information in a different way. The single biggest thing we recommend to our clients is to go with less information in more readable and easy-to-understand formats. This could include more postcard messages that are very specific topically, or electronic media. We're doing a lot of video these days, but it's not dry, "Let's talk about benefits;" it's much more animated and more specific.

[Never neglect] to give employees as specific information as they can get for their situation. So, I don't want to talk to a 25-year-old male about preventive women's health, but on the other hand, that 25-year-old male might be more inclined to have some kind of active lifestyle outcome based on an injury.

One of the things that we do is incorporate an overall theme in our communications. So, when an employee sees a communication that's benefits related, it ties into a larger experience [so he doesn't think], "Oh, here comes my dry information." We produced a design concept for one of our clients that's actually a game board. It's the game of Life, but the game of Life is actually your benefits.


What open enrollment challenges are your clients seeing? What might people not be ready for?

There are a couple of things that are particularly relevant this year. One of them is [who] qualifies as a full-time employee vs. a part-time employee - employers are going to have to figure that out. Do you move an employee down below 30 hours so you don't get a penalty [under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act]? Determining how many full-time workers you have remains a struggle. Most employers are trying to continue benefits for their workforce, but it's a difficult calculation.

When they do it, they might find they have a much larger benefit-eligible population. In many cases, you aren't just suddenly dealing with a much higher cost-spend when that group grows, but with people who've never had benefits before and will require more attention and direction. The newly insured might not know a copay, might not know a deductible.

We still have people asking, "What's an exchange? I thought health care was going to be free in January." So, we're doing a lot of work right now to make sure our benefits communications strategies don't overlook those simplest requirements and don't overlook the simplest explanation.

What's a good way for an employer to know "I'm on the right track; I'm doing enough," or "I'm way behind and I need to play catch-up"?

I think the broker-consultant community has also never been more important, so I think the first thing an employer can do is talk to their partners - whether those are brokers or consultants or [vendors].

There's also great, credible online information - the Kaiser Family Foundation website [is one] that we direct people to often, [as well as resources like] and [the Department of] Health and Human Services [and] IRS websites. The risk of going online is: How current is that information? But if you combine individual research [and] professional development message boards and/or group communities [with] your broker-consultant, that becomes like your team to make sure you're ready.


What lies ahead for employee communications?

Employees are going to have a lot more questions. So to an HR department, I would say, "If you don't have a strategy, your phone will be ringing off the hook." The days of the really lean HR department and no plan for how you're going to help your employees are over. You're going to get dragged in; you're going to have to help. The phone is going to ring more next year than it ever has.


HHS official says communication requires 'all hands on deck' Anton Gunn, director for external affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in February that when it comes to educating employees about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, "it's time to stop talking about it and time to be it."

Speaking at a Washington, D.C., event sponsored by Families USA, Gunn said, "Education and outreach is what we're doing right now and will continue through March 2014."

"This process is not easy," he continued. "We know we need to reach younger folks who don't know that there are benefits out there for them and who don't know the value of health insurance, what the security of health coverage can mean for them."

Gunn also emphasized the importance of word choice in messaging. "You've heard people use the word ‘exchange.' We're going to use the word ‘marketplace' ... because that actually makes sense to people. If we want to make the implementation of the Affordable Care Act real to people in this country, we need to recognize and use words that actually make sense to people."

Although the heavy lifting for such communications efforts primarily will be done by employers, Gunn said the next year is "an all-hands-on-deck situation" at HHS, with the full support of the federal government.

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