Consider this scenario. You’re about to go rafting down a river and you’re given these instructions:

1.      Put on your life vest.

2.      Get in the boat.

3.      Point the vessel downstream.

4.      Row until you get to the end.

Sounds easy enough, right?

But the problem with deceptively simple instructions is that they fail to take into account the sometimes-intricate subtleties that can make or break an experience. For example, what if you failed to secure one of the straps on the life vest? What if you didn’t know what to do when you hit rapids?

Everyone needs an expert to help them navigate turbulent waters. You wouldn’t raft the Colorado River without a river guide, would you?

It’s no different when asking your employees to sign up for benefits.

Also see: Think like a marketer to engage employees, drive loyalty

Employees are the most important assets of your company and you want them to feel confident that they're making the right decisions regarding benefits. As their guide, you want to help them navigate the waters and get them to the finish line safely with smiles on their faces.

With many employers moving to an online self-service model for benefits – and with the rapid changes in the health care industry – now more than ever, employees need a “buddy” to help them with their benefit selections and enrollment.

However, it’s unlikely you have the time to personally escort each employee through the benefits process. Benefits advocacy can help support enrollment in a variety of ways to ensure a smoother, safer ride for everyone.

There are three main groups of employees who might use a benefits advocacy system. Let’s take a look at each and how they might use benefits advocacy.

Group 1: The Empowered Enrollee

Going back to our river analogy, some people just need to rent the boat and they’re ready to go.

In terms of benefits, you can assume these employees own computers and that they’re probably already comfortable using them for work and for handling the business of life. For example, they may pay bills online.

This group is likely to call on benefits advocacy when they need password assistance or for answers to general plan questions.

For them, you can position benefits advocacy like this: “We know you’re smart, but consider this an added bonus that allows you to call somebody if you need help. We know you want to do this on your own, and now you don’t have to worry about getting stuck.”

Group 2: The Not-So-Empowered Enrollee

Other people might not only need to rent the boat, they might also need a map and a guide to help them get down the river.

The not-so-empowered enrollee will have some level of comfort using computers, but they might still need that “buddy” to answer certain questions.

This group will have a better experience if they have someone they can call to walk them through all of the steps necessary for enrollment and to answer questions that arise at different points in the process.

Group 3: The Enrollee Who Needs a Lifeline

And then there are the people who need someone to hold their hands from start to finish, while also patiently explaining each piece of equipment and how to navigate each bend in the river.

Here’s where benefits advocacy can act like a lifeline.

Even though many employers want to go paperless, it’s important to remember that not everyone has Internet access – or if they have access, they might use it only sparingly. That is, just because someone has an email account doesn’t mean that they bank online. Plus, it’s possible that many employee populations don’t have computer access at all, at work or at home.

Benefits advocacy allows people, who don’t have computers, to enroll over the phone. Not only can these employees sign up over the phone, they can get assistance selecting their benefits. Then, since these people often are more likely to be distrustful of the process, they will be sent a confirmation statement verifying that everything went through.

This kind of service is especially useful for older employee populations.

The Unexpected Side Benefit

Here’s a secret about benefits advocacy: Each time an employee calls in for assistance, there’s an opportunity for education. That is, they may think that they’re asking a simple question, such as “Which plan is the cheapest?”

But that call creates an opportunity to discuss the employee’s healthcare needs and how each plan correlates to their specific situations. That helps employee’s not only pick the right plans, but the right levels of coverage.

Or perhaps people call to get assistance in navigating the online system. But while they’re on the phone with a benefits advocacy consultant, they’re also getting an explanation of each plan and how to best utilize the benefits they choose.

Plus, the opportunities for education are ongoing. People can call benefits advocacy whenever there’s a needed plan change (e.g., getting married/divorced, having a child). Each contact should end with the employee walking away with more information and a better understanding of the nuances of their plan.

This is especially important when you consider that employees who sign up for the wrong plans may ultimately end up paying more and costing the company. If plans aren’t a good fit, employees don’t blame themselves – they blame their employer for offering a “bad” plan.

Mutually Beneficial

Employees often appreciate advocacy services for several reasons:

•        It eases the enrollment process for them.

•        They can walk away with a clearer understanding of their benefits and how much they’re going to have to pay.

•        They can utilize the service for all benefits, including medical, dental, life, disability, Employee Assistance Program Flexible Spending Accounts, etc.

•        There is someone to assist them with benefits that may require calculations.

•        Employees can feel more confident that they’re making the correct decisions for themselves and their families.

From the employer side, benefits advocacy saves a lot of hassle. It relieves HR of the time-consuming process of walking employees through the online system, as well as the burden of having to help them if they lose their passwords and lock themselves out. Consider that if you have a group of 500 employees and 50 of them can’t get into system. It’s a big time investment to spend 5-10 minutes with each person who can’t login, especially during a very busy time of year.

Plus, HR can have the assurance that employees are getting correct information.

Bonus: With all of the day-to-day benefits issues handled properly, employees will be more likely to use their coverage appropriately and that could mean a significant savings for employers.

Grace Campagna is director of BenefitsVIP, the employee advocacy and administration support center for benefits consulting firm Corporate Synergies.

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