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Quarterbacking voluntary benefits enrollment

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We are once again entering the benefits open enrollment season.

With football season kicked off, some fans have chosen players for their fantasy teams just like employees are choosing benefits for themselves and their family members.

Unlike fantasy football leagues, employees don’t get to trade “players” mid-season, so now is the time to get their benefits right for the upcoming year.

Of course, much attention is focused on medical plan changes. Those of us in the voluntary benefits space (much like the beleaguered kicker on a football squad) frequently gripe about how we get just a small fraction of the employer or employee mindshare during enrollment. But, don’t overlook voluntary benefits this enrollment season — big changes are happening here too.

First, voluntary benefits are now often included in open enrollment rather than off-cycle as we have seen in the past. This represents a big shift in the perception and prominence of voluntary products, which are no longer relegated to the sidelines.

In the past, voluntary benefits were viewed as an afterthought or “nice to have.” While important, they were not viewed as an integral part of the benefits package. We have seen a marked shift as employers and employees now view these offerings as a key part to their base benefits package.

Second, with the voluntary planning process moved up to an earlier point in the year, there is more collaboration between medical and voluntary benefits. Gone are the days of medical and voluntary brokers working in isolation (frequently at different times of the year), rolling out benefits in silos with different communication strategies.

And lastly, voluntary products are evolving along with the medical landscape. Voluntary benefits give employees options to customize their benefits’ package to meet their own personal coverage goals, price targets and risk tolerance.

For example, in a workplace with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), employees will have different approaches to managing their out-of-pocket medical costs. One employee may be comfortable funding a savings account, another may deal with expenses as they arise and many will want the added protection of voluntary benefits, such as hospital indemnity or accident insurance coverage.

Employees are demanding flexible benefits in a way that we have not seen before. In an environment where the traditional family unit is less common, employees can customize their benefit plans to fit their specific situation. Voluntary products generally offer a set number of options, letting employees find coverage that is most appropriate for their situation and budget.

So what opportunities does this environment create for brokers and consultants? To be successful, it’s important to understand an employer’s benefits philosophy across products and over a three to five year horizon. You can’t be siloed or short-term in your approach, focused only on a specific product sale or next year’s benefits package.

This summer, I worked with an employer who rolled out new health plan options to their employees for 2014. This employer wisely took a step back and assessed its total benefits package. In the process of introducing HDHPs, they developed a series of incentives to encourage employees to make healthy lifestyle decisions and reassessed their suite of voluntary benefits options.

I observed the time and effort the employer put into choosing voluntary benefits. The employer considered a host of factors, including the new medical offerings (in particular deductibles, out of pocket maximums, coinsurance levels and rates) and the demographics of the population. Seeing up close this thoughtful, integrated approach to voluntary benefits, it is clear to me that brokers and consultants need a firm grasp on the benefits philosophy and how voluntary benefits play alongside the medical plan to have a seat at the table in the current environment.

Employees are demanding a comprehensive benefits package and employers are striving to deliver this without breaking the bank. Successful brokers will rally the various players involved and quarterback the benefits selection and open enrollment process into the end zone.

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