How to decide on the best times, and lengths, for open enrollment

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This is the second article in a 10-part series on successful open enrollment.

When it comes to selecting an open enrollment window, timing is crucial.

Putting benefits selection at the end of the year may make sense to many employers, whose fiscal years often end in December, but between the holidays and end-of-year deadlines, employees may have too much on their plates to devote the proper time to choosing the plan that’s best for them.

For many organizations, the fall can be the best time for open enrollment. One big reason is the media attention given to the benefit-plan selection process in the months of October and November, says Robin Gelburd, founding president of FAIR Health, a national, independent organization with the mission of bringing transparency to healthcare costs and health insurance information.

Another is that most organizations conduct open enrollment in the fall. When there are two earners heading a family, “it is helpful to them to be making their coverage selection when they can compare the offerings of both their employers,” she adds.

Likewise, the length of time employees are given to sign up for benefits can affect the success of open enrollment. Windows that are too narrow or too long can create problems. Two weeks is considered optimal. If the window is shorter, employees tend to scramble, and make mistakes that can impact their health and financial security. If the window is longer than two weeks, employees tend to think they have more time to research health plans, and, as a result, may lose any sense of urgency to sign up.

Among other suggestions from enrollment experts:

  • Consider what else is going on in the business when deciding when to conduct enrollment. Employers should consider a list of all projects and tasks that are to be completed annually and note when each task is usually handled. Then, they should review the list and timeline and consider if any changes need to be made.
  • Consider compliance issues. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to communicate to their workforces any material changes to health plans and benefits a minimum of 60 days in advance.
  • Consider the time it takes to communicate various options. If there are multiple plan choices, or even HSAs, Gelburd suggests carving out enough “pre-enrollment” time to explain these offerings. “It’s important to inform employees about their features,” she says. It’s also helpful to refer them to online tools — for example, she points to the FAIR Health’s consumer website and its “cost lookup” feature, where employees can use bilingual educational materials to review costs if treatments are sought out-of-network
  • Consider the readiness of the benefits admin systems. Make sure technology is accessible before enrollment begins. Employees should be able to access open enrollment information — health plan and benefits material — 24/7, anytime and anyplace. It’s vital for a successful open enrollment because it’s difficult for employees to digest all of this information during the workday, then try to verbally communicate it to their families after-hours.

Employers usually face some challenges in the lead up to open enrollment, regardless of when the renewal period is. But proper timing, and length, of the enrollment period can go a long way in ensuring an employer’s success.

Tomorrow: How to pick the right benefits adviser.

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