Health summary plan descriptions: Keeping them readable

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It can take months, maybe even a year, to develop your health plan’s summary plan description, but after you proudly send it out for distribution odds are that you’ll hear nothing in return. Deep down, you just know that no one clicked on the link in the email you sent, no one visited the SPD page on your website, and those paper copies you mailed likely ended up in the shredder.

But there are some things you can do to get your employees to actually read the results of your hard work — and not just when they have a complaint or want to appeal a benefits decision.

Do some research. Use survey and focus group data, or simply have a conversation to find out what employees do and don’t like about their SPDs, or if they even know what they are.

Communicate about your SPDs. Tell your employees what they are, why they’re important, what information they can find there and how they can use them. SPDs can be great resources before enrollment by helping employees choose among options, or make good choices about how and where to get care. Get employees to understand that there is something in it for them.

Keep them readable. Remember these are communications materials, not just compliance documents. In fact, the first part of the ERISA regulations on SPDs state that they must “be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.” In other words, in conversational language — not benefits, insurance or legal jargon — around the sixth to ninth grade reading level. If you haven’t had a benefits communications professional review your SPDs lately, think about it. Sometimes small wording changes that can make a big difference.

Organize them logically and consistently. Employees should be able to find information easily — so start with what they want to know. This can include eligibility, how to sign up, what’s covered, what isn’t covered, what they need to do to get benefits or file a claim. Then get to the legal information. Use the same flow in each SPD.

Make them visually appealing. Use different levels of headings, callout boxes, charts and other visual elements to break up the text. You might even want to use icons to draw attention to certain topics — like legal scales to designate a legal requirement, or a magnifying glass for a closer look at a particular topic. Generally speaking, one column is easier to read than two or more.

Make them interactive. Today’s technology makes online SPDs easy to navigate. At minimum, include active links to external websites (your insurance carrier or TPA’s website and important government sites) and from the table of contents to specific pages. Consider links from section references to the specific section, or defined terms to a glossary. Or you can invest in a truly interactive document, with links to forms, other documents on your site, explanatory video clips and more.

As an added bonus, these types of interactive documents often come with underlying data analytics, which can tell you how many people are opening the document, which pages they’re visiting and for how long and what terms they’re searching. This data can help you further refine your SPD and other benefits communications to meet employee needs.

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