When it comes to the cost of benefits, Jennifer Weinstein thinks employers could stand to be more transparent with their employees. She calls it the "benefits curtain" - when employees get their open enrollment packet every year and read that their plan design has changed or that the company is changing medical carriers but "nobody really explains why those things happen," she says. "They just say 'costs are increasing' or 'the Affordable Care Act is here now, so this is why we have to make changes.' But to an employee? They don't understand what that means."

Weinstein is the director of benefits, compensation and HRIS with Ensign Services, which provides back-office support to the company's nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities and hospices in 138 locations across 11 states. Her efforts to increase transparency and communication with the company's 15,000 employees, as well as her work launching the organization's first-ever wellness program, have earned Weinstein EBN's 2013 Benefits Professional of the Year Award.

During her three-year tenure, Weinstein has implemented an award-winning wellness program, added 13 new benefit offerings, rolled out a benefits call center, implemented an online benefits enrollment system, implemented a total compensation statement tool, changed medical plan design offerings, reduced the number of medical rate structures from 68 to 8, increased participation in the 401(k) plan, created an innovative, branded communications program, staffed the benefits department, and overseen the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as it applies to Ensign.

Weinstein was drawn to Ensign by what she saw as an endless opportunity for change. "I love coming into something that's not perfect and making it great," she says. "Coming into this position, I saw all the possibilities of what could be done in so many different regards."

 

Full circle

She recalls seeing Gary Earl, one of the keynote speakers at this year's Benefits Forum & Expo and EBN's 2003 Benefits Professional of the Year, at a conference early in her career. She cites him as one of her mentors and credits him with igniting her passion for wellness. At the time, Earl was vice president of benefits and health care with Caesar's Entertainment. "I was so charged up. I had so much energy after his presentation about what they were doing at Caesar's in the way of wellness," says Weinstein. "I thought, 'I'm going to be in benefits forever. This is fantastic!'"

Both Caesar's and the company Weinstein was with at that time, The Salvation Army, worked with Cigna. Cigna's account managers arranged for Weinstein to visit Earl in Las Vegas, where he gave her a tour of the Paris Las Vegas and spent the entire day with her. "I was so in awe of him, and he was so inspiring to me, that I went back and implemented a fabulous wellness program at the Salvation Army," she says.

Within months of being hired at Ensign in 2010, Weinstein received approval for a wellness program and launched Be Well, in partnership with wellness vendor Viverae. The program was intended to combat Ensign's ever-increasing medical costs, provide employees with resources to help them better their health, and support the company's core value of putting employees first.

In the first year, 49% of active employees participated in the program by earning 100 Be Well reward points, a remarkable achievement considering Ensign's average employee turnover of 50%.

The wellness program became outcomes-based in year two, and now employees are able to earn extra incentives for falling within acceptable ranges in six different biometric screens, including cholesterol and blood sugar.

"Being able to work in the HR department in the benefits function, to help provide a comprehensive program and a wellness program that helps support employees, is very rewarding," says Weinstein.

That's not to say she hasn't had her challenges. Like every organization, Ensign is dealing with rising health costs. For the 2014 plan year, Ensign is shedding its traditional medical plans in favor of consumer-driven health plans. Weinstein acknowledges this will be a dramatic change for employees, but "we know that within the nursing home industry, most companies are going consumer-driven. I think that's pretty much happening everywhere, even outside the nursing home industry."

After much debate within the company about whether to slowly introduce CDHPs or just rip off the BandAid quickly and get it over with, Weinstein concluded "there's really no reason to baby-step into this. It is what it is, and I think that we have prepared for this greatly with implementing our Be Well wellness program in 2011, because the idea behind the program was to get employees to start being consumers of their health, to start thinking about where they access care, how they're taking care of their health, getting their preventive screenings. So it shouldn't be a shock that we're going consumer-driven when we've implemented this philosophy a couple of years ago."

Weinsten says that before joining Ensign she'd never worked for a company that had such low participation in its 401(k) plan. "A third of our employee population are certified nursing assistants and, unfortunately, this group is often living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "The idea of setting aside 1% or 2% of their salary doesn't seem possible."

Rather than get discouraged, Weinstein looked at the retirement plan as another opportunity to communicate with employees. She implemented training for the local HR payroll reps at each facility to educate them on the basics of the 401(k) plan - what it is and how it works. She also targeted the executive directors at each facility.

Then, in 2012, Weinstein and her team held a raffle. If employees enrolled in the 401(k) plan by a certain date, they were entered into a draw for one of 10 iPads. She also added a financial wellness component to the Be Well program, partnering with MetLife to offer its RetireWise program. Employees at each site have the opportunity to take RetireWise's four-week program taught by certified financial planners.

Her combined efforts have seen 750 additional employees enroll in the plan, which offers an employer match of 25 cents on the dollar up to the first 2% of pay.

 

Road ahead

Weinstein is constantly thinking of new ways to engage employees, the majority of whom don't have Ensign email addresses. "They're not sitting in front of a computer all day. We can't just shoot them an email or post something on a blog and expect them to find it."

To that end, she's considering a texting campaign for benefits information. "That's something employees want. ... We have to figure out how we're going to do that." It's just one more way Jennifer Weinstein is lifting the benefits curtain.

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