When the Affordable Care Act first passed, most self-insured employers thought they wouldn't need to pay much attention to the new health insurance exchanges (or marketplaces) created by the law. After all, they were intended to help uninsured people get access to insurance, and their employees were obviously insured. And President Obama did promise that if people liked their employer coverage, they would get to keep it. So there wasn't really anything for self-insured employers to worry about, right?
Well, it turns out that things aren't that simple. Employers do need to pay attention to the exchanges that have launched in their states — either by the state or the federal government — because even if their employees don't use them, the functioning of the exchanges depends pretty heavily on some critical interactions among exchanges, employers, and their employees.
Most employers are aware by now that the requirement for large employers to offer coverage has been delayed for one year. But there are still many provisions in the ACA that place burdens and obligations on employers related to the exchanges. Most importantly, all employers (regardless of whether they currently offer insurance) must still provide notification to their employees describing the exchanges, and explaining the implications of applying for a tax credit on the exchange. There are also regulatory processes for exchanges to verify with employers information that individuals provide on exchange enrollment applications.
So employers are starting to realize that they really do need a communications strategy for how to tackle exchange education with their employees. Simply mailing the required notification form to all employees and calling it a day won't cut it.
Employees are going to have questions — lots of them. Some have been following the health care reform discussion, and those that hadn't been following it probably are now, thanks to the major issues the federal exchange has been having since its launch on October 1. Employees are seeing TV ads, print ads in magazines and newspapers, in addition to the media coverage on the exchange launch. And policy experts have noticed that some of these advertisements are totally devoid of any mention that the exchange is Obamacare or the ACA, and most don't mention anything at all about the individual mandate and that the exchanges are how to fulfill the mandate.
Employees could come into contact with navigators, certified application counselors, or in-person assisters (individuals hired by exchanges to assist with enrollment), all of which will be emphasizing the exchanges and the individual mandate, but probably don't know much about employer-sponsored plans in general, let alone each individual's circumstances regarding employer-sponsored coverage.
Recent polls have shown that as many as half of Americans believe the ACA was either repealed, or held unconstitutional, so these messages will no doubt be confusing for employees to hear. Despite all of the media coverage of the disastrous exchange launch, there are still people out there who might know about exchanges, but don't know what the ACA means to them.
Employers should be taking action now to devise a communications strategy aimed at their employees that is relevant to their workforces and fits appropriately within their company cultures. We all know that employees don't read the volumes of (boring) information employers provide during open enrollment season. Educating employees about exchanges is going to require a different and more ongoing approach. Some of the tactics employers should consider include:
- Human resources staff should be meeting with executive leadership to devise and invest in an employee communications strategy
- Contracting with a call center to do outbound calling to every employee
- Requiring all employees to meet face-to-face with an HR staff member
- Producing short videos about the exchanges for use in company communications
- Requiring attendance at "all staff" meetings
- Creating one-pagers to post on company intranet sites or to distribute through company newsletters
One thing that has been discussed by some employers, but that may not be the best thing to rely on as a sole tactic, are the navigators. While a lot of organizations have become navigators, there is general agreement among policy makers that the program itself is woefully underfunded. And since some exchanges are run by states themselves, and the federal government runs others, it’s anticipated that the number of navigators hired and the training they will receive will vary from state to state. Also, there is no statutory requirement that navigators be trained on the nuances of employer-sponsored coverage, so there is no guarantee that they will be able to answer employees' questions about the coverage they are offered at work.
The bottom line is that employers do need to care about exchanges, even though the employer mandate was delayed for one year. Understanding the exchanges is key to employers avoiding the penalty payments that will be assessed come 2015.
Colleen Bruce is director of value-based purchasing and public policy with the National Business Coalition on Health.
Are you fielding employee questions about the exchanges? How have you handled the communication of the health insurance exchanges? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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