Open Enrollment 7 Strategies for Success

By Kathleen Doheny

Nov. 2, 2007

Open enrollment season is becoming busier and more complex. There’s a growing array of options to present, legally required notices to distribute and, often, bad news to bear about increasing costs to employees.

Even so, it’s a precious opportunity to showcase for workers how well the company is taking care of them, according to benefits and health care experts. And it’s an opportune time not only to educate workers about how to choose coverage wisely, but also to be sure they know doing so can preserve their health and perhaps save them (and the company) money.

Here are seven strategies that employers should consider for open enrollment season—either for your upcoming session, if that is still in the planning stages, still have time, or certainly for fall 2008:

Expand your views of the open enrollment goals. “During open enrollment, most employers focus on workers choosing health plans,” says Lenny Sanicola, benefits practice leader for WorldatWork, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The organization focuses on total rewards, compensation, benefits and work/life issues.

It can be much more than just a time to make sure everyone has chosen a PPO, HMO or high-deductible plan.

“Don’t miss the opportunity to highlight dental insurance, pet insurance, life insurance, your retirement plan,” Sanicola says, “even though no decisions [may] need to be made in those areas.” Laying out “the big picture,” he says, can help get the message across to employees that the benefits package the organization offers is a good one. This is especially true, he says, if a company has had to increase the employees’ cost share for health insurance. Pointing out all the other benefits can ease the sting and make it easier for workers to look at the pluses, not just the increased costs, Sanicola says.

Rethink the big meeting. Open enrollment also provides an opportunity to explain how health care works and to help workers understand what is behind the numbers, Sanicola says. Don’t assume that one big group meeting will do it, say Sanicola and another expert, David Stefan, executive director of healthcare for J.D. Power and Associates in Phoenix, which has recently begun rating health plans.

Instead, use a variety of methods to educate employees, taking into account workers’ different learning styles. “Some learn best by hearing things, some in writing, some need to see it in pictures,” Stefan says. Some need one-on-one interaction rather than, or in addition to, a group setting. “People are often embarrassed to ask basic questions if they think everyone else understands,” Stefan says. “The company doing an effective job is going to cover all those bases with their employees.”

That might mean conducting a meeting, posting online or sending out in other ways such tools as a glossary of health care terms, opportunities for a one-on-one question-and-answer session with an HR person, a telephone hot line, or all these options.

Cover the basics—and then some. Many employers grossly overestimate what their employees know about health plans, research suggests. For instance, only about two-thirds of consumers understand how a deductible works, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2007 National Health Insurance Plan Satisfaction Study. And 45 percent of those surveyed said they needed help understanding how best to use their health plan.

So employers shouldn’t be afraid to cover the basics, such as co-payments, coverage limits and exclusions. Another common pitfall is getting stuck in health care jargon. Employers should consider asking someone outside HR and benefits—such as a media relations, communications or marketing person—to look at materials that an employer plans to distribute and see if they are understandable, suggests Patty Cartwright, an attorney and principal at Mercer in Los Angeles. “Or have an internal focus group,” she says. “Give them the materials and ask, ‘Do you get this?’ “

Reach out to employees’ families.Once the materials are approved, don’t just distribute them to employees, Sanicola says. Reach out to their families, too. “Involve the dependent members,” he says. “Often it’s the spouses who make the decisions. Invite them to the open enrollment meetings. Send information to the home to their attention. Often the decision has to be made as a family.”

Get help from your service providers and others.Employers might be surprised to hear it, Stefan says, but employees might not consider them the best source of information for their health care.

In J.D. Power research conducted in 2007, only 2.5 percent of health plan members surveyed said they trust their employers for information on health and staying healthy, but up to 20 percent trusted their health plan. Capitalize on that trust, Stefan suggests, and ask your health plan representatives to come in and give an open enrollment presentation. You can also refer your employees to check out for themselves health plan ratings from reputable organizations. For instance: The National Committee for Quality Assurance a private, not-for-profit organization, collaborates with U.S. News & World Report to rank health maintenance organizations and point-of-service plans. J.D. Power and Associates released its newPower Circle ratings of health plans in March 2007. By expanding into health care, the company hopes to meet a largely unfilled need: independent information on health plans obtained directly from consumers, Stefan says. (Zagat Surveys and WellPoint recently announced that a more limited service—one that would rate doctors—will be available in January 2008 to about 1 million of WellPoint’s 35 million members.)

Reinforce the messages. No matter how understandable the open enrollment information packet is, “be aware not everyone will read the stuff,” Cartwright says. That’s why she suggests employers switch to the “reinforcement” mode right after the initial blast of open enrollment information is out there. “Repeat, repeat, repeat,” she says. “If you are doing something great like enhancing a benefit, keep saying it over and over in different ways—postcards, e-mails, supplementary booklets. We have one client who has electronic enrollment, and it is keyed in [to the system] to send out reminders” to employees on the verge of being tardy.

Keep communicating year-round. Even after open enrollment ends, keeping up the stream of information about health and other plan choices is wise, benefits experts say. It could be as simple as a monthly tip covering a different practical topic each time, such as how best to access preventive care, Sanicola says. Keeping up the communication effort year-round might just make next year’s open enrollment season a little less hectic.

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