There’s a reason clichés become, well, cliché: because they’re true.

And the more benefits managers and business owners we talk to lately in the land of health care reform, it’s apparent many of them can’t see the forest for the trees.

They’ve been laser-focused for the past few years on major medical insurance and the Affordable Care Act. The owner of a small business with fewer than 50 employees might be considering a defined contribution for employees entering the health insurance marketplace. A large employer could be rethinking a rich benefits package in anticipation of the excise tax of 2018. For both, the ACA is challenging the traditional employer role as a benefits provider. And there’s no denying medical insurance is the cornerstone of a good benefits package, so that intense focus is understandable.

Where employers make a mistake is letting the towering tree of major med completely obscure their view of the broad benefits horizon.

The fact is the vast majority of health benefits are provided by employers — and most of them plan to keep offering core health benefits. A 2013 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 91% of employers with 50 or more workers offer health insurance, and virtually all firms — 99% — with at least 200 employees do. Those numbers have stayed constant or risen slightly in the past year, even as ACA implementation has become a reality.

So where should employers look for a more effective, competitive benefits program?

Large or small, employers continue to struggle with rising health care and health insurance costs. One highly effective cost-control strategy is offering a higher-deductible medical insurance plan partnered with voluntary benefits.

This type of benefits plan redesign keeps premiums lower and more affordable for both employers and employees. Disability, accident, hospital indemnity and cancer or critical illness coverage offered as voluntary benefits help workers minimize their financial exposure to out-of-pocket expenses. Along with supplemental life insurance, they also expand the company’s benefits package with more choices, allowing employees to customize their coverage.

Interest in voluntary benefits is expected to soar in the next few years. Nearly half of employers in a recent Towers Watson survey say they’ll see voluntary benefits as important in 2018, the final year of the ACA implementation when the excise tax comes into play.

But wait a minute, you say: We already have enough trouble communicating benefits at annual enrollment time without introducing a big change that could be unpopular if employees don’t understand it — and that was before all the extra confusion created by health care reform. And yes, the burden of evaluating and selecting their own benefits can seem overwhelming to employees.

But when employees understand the reasons for change and what their own needs and options are, they’re more likely to engage and participate in their benefits program. And there’s a strong correlation between benefits knowledge and employee satisfaction in the workplace: According to a 2011 Unum study, more than four out of five workers who rated their benefits education highly also rated their benefits packages positively and said their workplace was an excellent or very good place to work.

Even better news: Benefits communication doesn’t have to cost you a dime. High-quality benefits providers offer a variety of communication options that can be customized to your business’ needs. Start your list of must-haves with individual benefits counseling sessions. In a 2013 Eastbridge Consulting Group study, 65 percent of employees said a one-to-one meeting with a benefits representative is the most helpful communication method to introduce them to voluntary benefits available at work.

If you’re having trouble seeing around the huge trunk of health care reform, remember your benefits program is much more than medical insurance. And if it’s not, it should be.

Steve Bygott is assistant vice president of core market services at Colonial Life. He can be reached at sbygott@coloniallife.com or 803-678-6424.

Do you agree? Are you so focused on major medical that you're struggling to give other benefits a fair shake? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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