You are busy preparing your company's benefits open enrollment memo when the phone rings. It's Elizabeth from Operations, thanking you profusely because she just read in the newspaper that she can cover her 25-year-old son on the company's medical insurance plan.

You tell Elizabeth that it's true, but, based on the company's effective date for health care reform, his coverage will not take effect until your next plan renewal, April 1, 2011. She's disappointed.

Then, you check your e-mails, and James from Marketing is upset because he got an e-mail from a company saying the value of his benefits on his Form W-2 will be taxable, and he wants to know if this is true.

You let James know that he received inaccurate information, and the value of his benefits on his Form W-2 will not be taxed. He's relieved.

As the day continues, the questions (and your responses) continue. You ask yourself: How can I manage this influx of employee questions (including many that are emotionally charged) and still get my job done?

The answer lies in determining the most effective ways to communicate the impact of health care reform to your employees. Through effective communication, you will not only create operational efficiencies (allowing you to get your day job done), but also gain employee trust and respect for the company's business decisions (thus minimizing extreme emotions).

There will be challenges along the way. Health care reform is complex, and your employees will continue to read and hear all types of information through the media and Internet. So, what are some ways this can be accomplished?

What you know now

Communicate what you know now, not what you anticipate might happen in the future.

As soon as reasonably possible, clearly communicate the health care reform provisions to be introduced on your first renewal after Sept. 23, 2010 and be prepared to manage the disappointment factor if you do not introduce any provisions they were expecting, such as a grandfathered plan may not introduce free preventive care.

Don't focus on the future health care reform provisions, including whether health insurance will be offered in 2014.

Let employees know that there is too much uncertainty associated with the future provisions and that the company will make business decisions based on complete information at the appropriate time.

Offering timely and complete information will help establish credibility and trust with the employees and help them understand health care reform's impact on them and the organization.

Diffuse the myths

Diffuse health care reform myths immediately. As long as there is uncertainty associated the legislation, there's the potential that employees will receive incomplete or inaccurate information.

As soon as you learn about any such situations, it is important that you reach out to employees to remind them that they should use you as the prime point of contact for all company health care reform information because you are in the best position to provide them with accurate and credible information.

Encouraging employees to use you as their prime source of communications will minimize any negative effects associated with the receipt of external information.

We all know that information can spread from one employee to 20 within minutes, so it's critical that these situations are addressed immediately.

As shown by the experiences of Elizabeth and James, health care reform is being publicized through the media and the Internet like never before. The result: Employee questions will increase and expand in breadth.

It's critical that your department is appropriately staffed to not only answer employee questions, but also to ensure that all employees have an open communications pipeline to reasonably ask their questions and receive answers.

Recognizing the importance of ensuring every employee, no matter what language they speak or where they are located, is able to reasonably reach someone with their questions and receive answers is very important in gaining and maintaining their trust.


Contributing Editor Ed Bray, J.D., is the director of compliance for Burnham Benefits Insurance Services and Burnham Gibson Financial Services. He helps corporate clients establish and maintain regulatory compliance for their health and welfare benefit plans. He can be reached at bray@burnhambenefits.com.

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