Open Enrollment is one of the busiest times of the year for HR professionals and often an overwhelming period for employees, too. During this time, employees are inundated with complex benefits information, urged to complete the enrollment process on deadline and then reengaged if any information is inaccurately submitted. Worse, after receiving an abundance of information during Open Enrollment, employees are often left on their own to decipher how to properly use their elected benefits package over the coming year.

According to a report by Hewitt Associates, employer health care costs are expected to increase 9 percent in 2011, the highest level in five years. As health care costs continue to increase, both agents and employers must play an active role in reducing overall benefit expenses. Encouraging employees to make financially smart decisions while promoting a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce both employee and employer health care expenses.

Communication is key

Maintaining constant communication with employees after Open Enrollment is a crucial and sometimes overlooked step in the benefits process. Making smart decisions requires education. Communicating these top five tips to employees throughout the entire year will reduce out-of-pocket expenses, resulting in satisfied and healthier employees.

  1. Understand your benefits coverage.
    After employees complete Open Enrollment, they need to know how to use their benefits over the coming year. According to MetLife’s 9th Annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends, only 45 percent of all employees find their benefits materials to be clear and comprehensive. Employees cannot make smart health care decisions if they do not understand their benefits.

    Agents and employers must consistently communicate plan details with clear, concise information throughout the year. Inform employees which doctors are in-network and out-of-network, how to enroll in prescription drug plans and how much medical treatments will cost. For example, reminding employees that emergency room visits are very costly and should only be used in an emergency will help them decide if an urgent care doctor is a better choice for their emergency care. Proactively educating employees about their plan details will reduce employee out-of-pocket expenses.

  2. Use FSA and HSA contributions.
    According to FSAStore.com, more than 35 million consumers contribute to flexible spending accounts and yet almost $450 million goes unused each year. Unused contributions are lost if not spent by year-end. Reminding employees throughout the year that more than 24,000 products, ranging from family planning to first aid, that are eligible for FSA funding will help reduce this number.

    Unlike FSAs, health savings accounts do not expire and the funds belong to the employee. HSAs provide a tax-advantage to employees enrolled in a High Deductible Health Plan and allow employees to accumulate funds from year to year. Remind employees that they can utilize these funds for all qualified expenses.

  3. Enroll in wellness programs.
    Participating in a wellness program helps employees manage their health and ultimately reduce their out-of-pocket expenses by living a fit lifestyle. Approximately 80-90 percent of large corporations in the U.S. offer employees a wellness program, according to the Wellness Councils of America. Providing a wellness program, and even rewarding employees for their participation, helps employers reach overall health and fitness goals. Subsidized gym memberships, for example, are a great option. If your company does not offer wellness programs, encourage employees to seek healthy lifestyle options outside the workplace.
  4. Participate in preventive care.
    An August 2010 survey by the Midwest Business Group on Health found that 88 percent of workers lack an understanding of the value of preventive services and 56 percent of workers say they have “no motivation to stay healthy.” It is imperative for employees to understand the importance of preventive care and to participate in all preventive services offered to them. Preventive services such as checkups, vaccines, dental cleanings and mammograms can detect or prevent early health issues, saving employees from incurring future medical expenses and potentially saving their lives. Provide regular reminders that encourage employees to routinely use preventive care services.
  5. Know your yearly medical expenses.
    Encourage employees to be aware of how much they spend during the year on medical expenses. Knowing their total yearly expenses will help employees choose a benefits plan in the next enrollment period that best meets the employee’s specific needs. Remind employees that medical costs aren’t just doctor visit fees, but also include prescription drugs, certain over the counter medications and medical supplies.

Continuing ed

Even after Open Enrollment, employees rely on HR administrators to answer questions regarding benefits coverage. Using clear, concise messaging to consistently educate employees will give them the knowledge and confidence they need to take control of their health and ultimately reduce their own out-of-pocket expenses.

Technology has simplified the process of educating and communicating with employees. Agents and employers can easily streamline employee communications into one convenient place, use videos for consistent messaging or schedule notifications to land directly into an employee’s inbox.

Maintaining open communication with employees after the Open Enrollment period is a necessity for educating employees about plan benefits, encouraging healthy lifestyles and promoting wise spending.

Nancy Sansom is the senior vice president of marketing and communications for Benefitfocus, the largest healthcare and voluntary benefits software provider in the U.S. She can be reached at nancy.sansom@benefitfocus.com.

For more exclusive benefits coverage, visit ASJ’s Employee Benefits Resource Center.

Past employee benefits stories from ASJ:

How to Diversify and Grow Your Employee Benefits Business

When Selling Employee Benefits to Small Businesses, Knowledge is Power

Benefits Agents: Update Your Enrollment Process

Thriving in the Midst of Health Care Reform

Help Employees Meet Their Challenges