This state revamped its benefits. Then came the hard part

CLEARWATER, Fla. — In 2017, Rhode Island knew it was ready to update health benefits for its some 14,500 employees.

“We fell behind, and we had to make some changes,” said Paula Cofone, deputy personnel administrator in the Department of Administration for the state of Rhode Island. “We wanted to modernize our plans to better help [workers] understand [them], while also yielding cost savings. We had to add coinsurance and increase some copays.”

The state worked on changes and got ready to roll out its new plans for 2019 enrollment. But it faced a challenge: Helping employees understand — and appreciate — all the updates.

For one thing, there were now a few different health plans, including two new PPOs. The state previously only had a high-deductible health plan, which most employees understood, Cofone said. Second, the state moved to online enrollment; previously it was all done on paper. The state also enhanced dental and vision offerings and extended coverage to dependents.

Spreading the word in the right way was an important consideration, Cofone said Wednesday during the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plan’s Health Benefits Conference and Expo.

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“We knew we needed a full-fledged communications plan for our employees,” she said. “We wanted to be successful with launching these plans. We spent a year figuring out new plans with our vendors and unions; we wanted to do the same with our employees.”

The state went to work rolling out a communications plan, two months before enrollment began, with the help of HR and benefits consulting firm The Segal Group.

It wasn’t easy, said Laura Cochran, vice president of communications at The Segal Group.

“It’s a lot of employees with different communication needs, diverse audiences,” Cochran said. “[Many] didn’t understand the difference between a copay and deductible; we knew we had to explain that.”

The communications plan included a number of elements because, Cochran said, “with this much change, we knew we had to cast a huge net.”

One of the elements was a printed benefits guide, which the state didn’t have before.

“We used photography of Rhode Island and had really bright, fun images,” Cochran said. “We used call-out boxes to break up text, defined terms so they understood it. We really explained everything [employees] needed to know, their deadlines, and spelled out exactly what they had to do.”

The guide was a hit. So was a new website about benefits information, which included video demos that explained in detail various plans and how they work for employees when someone is in the hospital for a surgery, has an accident or goes to a doctor’s appointment.

“It was really about showing and telling,” Cochran said. “We wanted to give them information in an infographic way to help explain the plans.”

See also: Benefits in the bathroom stall: Outside-the-box tips for getting employees engaged during enrollment

The most important elements, though, were open enrollment fairs and face-to-face meetings attended by about 10% of employees, Cofone said. “We really wanted to give a personal touch,” she said. “We offered a walkthrough of the portal to help them understand it, and we had people who could help you enroll online if you wanted.”

The result of the entire plan? The vast majority of employees (86%) successfully enrolled online. Meanwhile, the new benefits site had 130,000 visits, and the enrollment page had 30,000 visits.

It was “unbelievable,” Cofone said. “We had a great reaction.”

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