When thinking about what employees face when selecting a healthcare plan, you cannot help but think back to the late 1990s where we started to see the shift from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution/401(k) plans. At first, employees were asked to make retirement investing choices with little knowledge about 401(k) investing. Over time, technology evolved to offer basic retirement and investment education, which matured into decision support.

It’s much the same today with employer-sponsored health benefits. Employees are asked to make decisions during open enrollment they have never had to address before. They must consider:

· What are the risks and benefits of enrolling in a high-deductible health plan?

· If I enroll in an HDHP, should I also open a health savings account?

· How would opening an HSA impact the income available for a 401(k) contribution?

· And, if I have a 401(k) and HSA, how do I best optimize the investments across those two programs?

Employees now have different technology expectations. Retail giants like Amazon, Netflix and others have raised the bar on the consumer experience with respect to buying decisions, and employees expect the same proficiency when choosing a health plan. They demand simple, robust benefit experiences that are intuitive, personalized and engaging. It also should offer an intuitive experience that mirrors how employees use these other types of technologies in their daily lives.

Employees must be equipped to weigh the coverage, costs and risks associated with various health plans against their own unique home and health situations to maximize their benefit selections. They need access to the kind of support that guides them to decisions that deliver the greatest value.

Fortunately, benefit technology has now progressed from providing education to true decision support and guidance.

Improving decision-making

Not all open enrollment decision support experiences are created equal, but a company can quickly determine how well its benefit platform aligns with employees’ needs simply by identifying the percentage of those using its existing tools. It can also assess whether the choices being made by employees are impacting healthcare expenditures in a positive way.

At a minimum, benefit platforms should understand an employee’s needs nearly from the outset. For instance, a smart, intuitive tool will know employees’ marital status, dependents, history of benefits choices, income and HSA balance the minute they log on.

In fact, new advances that enable integration between benefit management, human resources, payroll and other administrative platforms should make it easy to create a singular experience. For example, adding a child in the benefits profile should enable a seamless change in payroll deductions as well.

While any benefit enrollment process requires some level of Q&A, advanced decision support solutions should leverage algorithms to get to the important questions quickly. A tool should already know the basic details and then focus instead on expected health changes such as pregnancy or a new diagnosis.

To help employees feel greater empowerment in final decisions, it’s also important for support technology to offer multiple, rated options instead of just one recommendation. By weighing various options and creating a “value score,” a decision support platform allows employees to consider the advice and their own preferences simultaneously. For example, while an HDHP may deliver the greatest value, an employee may prefer a plan with less financial risk.

Even with the best decision support tools, there will still be a percentage of employees who demand support. Companies should still build in mechanisms such as toll-free numbers or chat capabilities for addressing this reality.

Employers must devise strategies that effectively guide employees to the best benefit selections during open enrollment. Doing so not only helps employees, but it can also assist employers in a benefit climate where more options and greater risk pose significant opportunities and challenges.

Companies that leverage intuitive, simplified decision support experiences and deliver them in a way that enhances business strategy are best positioned to respond to evolving employee expectations and reap their own financial reward.

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