Summer hasn’t officially started, and the fall seems a lifetime away, which is why open enrollment may be low on employers’ to-do list. But any executive overseeing employee benefits knows that to have a smooth and successful open enrollment period, it’s critical to have a plan in place well before summer kicks off. And given what’s happened in the world of healthcare over the past year, last year’s approach to open enrollment simply won’t get the job done.

Wondering what you need to take into account this year, and how can HR and benefits managers get ahead of the game now? Here are the top three factors to consider when developing this year’s open enrollment strategy:

1. Healthcare is in flux

Recent activity in Washington to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is top of mind for both employers and employees. With the future of the ACA and the likelihood of other regulatory changes uncertain, employers should be prepared to address and respond to multiple scenarios. Minimally, that means having answers to employee questions.

Employees are likely to be confused about what’s currently the law versus what’s been proposed, and when any required changes would take effect. This year in particular, employers should prepare to answer questions about changes to flexible spending account and health savings account contributions and whether there have been changes to covered services as well as more general questions around the company’s plans for their benefits plans going forward.

If you’re not proactive about providing answers to questions before employees think of them, the result could be confusion, frustration and an over-active rumor mill. And don’t forget: It’s perfectly fine to say you don’t know yet — as long as you say something.

2. New SBC template applies

Last spring, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services posted a new Summary of Benefits Coverage (SBC) template for use after April 2017. The new template includes substantial format and content changes, as well as a new coverage example and new coverage calculator — all of which require programming and process changes and all of which have generated many technical challenges for employers with non-calendar-year plans.

HR teams should be sure to bake in extra time (as early as possible) to become familiar with the new template and the data required to avoid last-minute scrambles. And for employers who’ve been handling SBCs internally, it’s certainly not too early to line up outside help — the extent of the changes may place additional strains on the HR team’s bandwidth this year.

3. Pressing need for employee education

Healthcare is already overwhelming for most employees — nearly half of American adults have difficulty understanding and using health information. Lack of understanding impedes the ability to make appropriate health decisions about plan options and when, how and where to receive care. As the healthcare system continues to grow more complex, it’s becoming increasingly clear to many employers that simply providing tools or information to employees isn’t enough — they need to provide one-on-one enrollment support.

For example, Strike— a privately held energy services companies in the United States and a provider of pipeline, facilities, fabrication, maintenance and integrity services — has already developed its benefits and enrollment strategy for 2018, which includes robust communications.

Stike’s 4,600 employees are scattered across the United States at various office and construction site locations, making delivery of consistent, yet personalized information to each individual a challenge. And, since fewer than 25% of its employees have access to its email system, Strike has had to get creative. Their solution? Using mailers and text messages with links to web postings that describe what is being offered, the associated costs and the best approach for employees and their families. To help employees get the message, Strike also relies on employee educators to hold one-on-one phone calls with each individual to ensure they understand their benefit options and make educated choices.

Strike’s challenges underscore why having an enrollment strategy in place is so critical. Having a good understanding of each segment of your audience — their level of understanding of the subject matter, their particular concerns and how best to communicate to them — is a fundamental element of any strategy.

You’ve heard it before: People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. Letting open enrollment season sneak up on you could do more than just force long hours at the office or cause an administrative headache. It will take away time from what really matters — ensuring that every employee has the materials and support they need to make educated choices about their coverage for the coming year.

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Kim Buckey

Kim Buckey

Kim Buckey is vice president of client services at DirectPath.