When Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey froze its cash balance retirement plan in 2009, the organization knew it had to make its new benefit model work for current employees. And as a company charged with making health care work for both its clients and its employees, it realized that the only way to do so was through more education.

As a result, the insurer elected to change its retirement benefits offering into a 401(k) model, says Cynthia Tobia, director of compensation, benefits and wellness for New Jersey’s largest health insurance provider. The company also put more emphasis into its wellness program, and changed up the incentives-based model it used for its health offerings; a coordinated communication program was a crucial part of that overhaul.

“We knew we were going to have an increased need to educate our employees about investments and retirement,” Tobia tells EBN. “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”

That’s when Tobia had her first interaction with Allison Mislow, of Barnum Financial Group, an office of MetLife. Mislow is a regional Metlife PlanSmart director, where she works with corporations to bring financial and retirement education into office and online settings. The PlanSmart financial education series is a national program that offers seminars on 17 different topical programs, ranging from pre-retirement planning to “smart money moves in your 20s and 30s.”

Nowadays, approximately 15-20 people attend Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield “lunch and learn” sessions, but 50 people logged in for this month’s “smart money moves in your 20s and 30s” webinar, Tobia says. She adds that the organization has also aimed messages to specific employees for specific programs, to bump up participation rates.

“For instance, when we offer the women in investing class, we only send communication to the women. We’ve done Social Security classes where we’ve sent it to individuals aged 50 and above,” Tobia tells EBN.

Also See: Be vigilant about 401(k) plan fees

Last year, the organization put on 18 classes, which had 302 attendees. And since April, there have been nine classes offered with just over 250 attendees. Tobia says she isn’t sure if the increase is due to the combination of webinar and face-to-face educational sessions, or the attraction of the healthmiles associated with the MetLife program.

“I am not saying that people just go for that [the healthmiles or wellness point incentives], I certainly hope not, but if it takes that to get them in the door I am all for it,” she says.

Tobia says MetLife’s retirewise program was able to spread to the workforce by word of mouth. But according to Mislow, the favorite educational format can vary depending on the workforce’s generation and personality. Meanwhile, she says having a mix of both in-person and online lessons can add to overall financial acumen.   

“I think it’s important to offer the education in a number of different ways because people are comfortable and choose to learn in a number of different ways,” Mislow advises. “So whenever possible, I try and offer both a webinar and an in-class format if possible. There are people, especially the younger generation, who are much more comfortable learning by webinar. There also are always going to be people that are much more comfortable learning in person.”

“The last thing we want to see is an employee coming to us with a bag full of 401(k) statements that they’ve never opened because they feel overwhelmed about understanding it or reading it,” Mislow adds.

Also See: Baby boomers continue retirement confidence slide

Tobia says that in 2011, her organization also decided to re-launch its wellness program, now known as Journey to Health. HBCBSNJ’s financial wellness piece, including MetLife’s PlanSmart program, is just part of a wellness initiative that includes nutrition and physical efforts. The organization also utilizes MetLife’s voluntary platform.

“We really believe that [wellness] is a continual journey and people are on various parts of that journey at any given point in time,” Tobia says. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, based in Newark, N.J., has an employee population that’s approximately 77% female, 50% minority and 44% work-at-home. 

Incentives were important at the beginning of the program, and participants were able to avoid a $500 surcharge in health plan premiums, provided they took part in the wellness offerings.

In return for getting a physical from their local physician or opting for a preventive screening, participants earned healthmiles or wellness points as part of Virgin Pulse’s wellness offering. When the points add up, employees were given a reduction on their health costs.  

Transparency in all of these innovations was crucial to the insurance company. Due to the change in retirement coverage and a desire to be a responsible fiduciary, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey offered health miles points for anyone who participated in the financial wellness workshops, Tobia states. Employees were also told about the financial disincentives if they didn’t take part.

“The reason we called it a surcharge was we actually wanted to be upfront with our employees as opposed to raising their premiums and say you are going to get a discount,” Tobia explains to EBN. “We decided to call it what it was.”

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