At this point in the year, most employees have chosen their benefits for the year ahead—and employers are breathing a sigh of relief that open enrollment is behind them. However, open enrollment should be the beginning—not the end—of your benefits communications efforts. Now, more than ever, employers must ensure their employees are educated health care consumers—able to choose and use their plans cost-effectively. Sadly, according to a 2020 consumer survey, only 51% of respondents who knew what coinsurance is also knew how it applied to their coverage – meaning, nearly half of those with health coverage still don’t understand basic concepts of their plan. This knowledge gap could be costly, given coinsurance and premiums often represent a significant portion of out-of-pocket expenses for consumers.
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Knowing 2021 will continue looking different than years past, employers will need to be even more intentional in ensuring workers have access to accurate, consistent information about their plans so they can make cost-effective health care choices. As employers lay out their strategies, they should ask themselves three main questions.
Where Are Employees Most Confused?
Open enrollment provides a valuable opportunity for employers to gain insight into the health literacy levels of their employees. Before diving into plans for 2021, HR pros should meet with their teams to determine the questions employees asked most often in 2020. By identifying the topics that most perplex their employees, employers can target their messaging in the year ahead.
Such information can also provide guidance as to where existing materials need to be beefed up. For example, Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs) can be terrific for employees to get answers to their benefits questions. Tweaking the content to address frequently asked questions—and to improve the visual appeal and readability of the document, can have substantial benefits down the road. Many employers have even started offering interactive SPDs, supplemented by a data analytics component. This data can further help HR track areas of interest and confusion, enabling them to address knowledge gaps about their benefit options to enhance understanding and drive increased benefits usage.
By first understanding what employees don’t know, employers can determine what information they should be sharing throughout the year. The next step is figuring out when and how.
Where Are There Communication Gaps?
If the gold standard is year-round communication, the first step is to identify where/when communications are falling short. And if benefits education is limited to open enrollment season, that’s a (significant) gap to target.
Employers should put themselves in employees’ shoes and ask a few questions: Can employees get answers to their benefits questions where and when they need them? Do they have an expert to call when choosing providers or if they receive a surprise medical bill? Do they know how to check their provider’s network status, or why it’s so important to do so? If the answer to any of those questions is, “No” or “I don’t know,” then employees are not receiving the year-round support they need. And if the response is “they can call HR,” chances are your HR team can’t be as strategic as they need to be.
The “new normal” of working during a pandemic led many employers to adopt virtual support tools for this year’s open enrollment season to ensure that consistent messaging reached employees on a timely basis. These tools—especially when supplemented by targeted print materials—can be used year-round to share important information with employees. In 2021, beyond covering the basics of how their coverage works, employers would be wise to expand their educational content to cover the short- and long-term side effects of COVID-19 recovery; and the impact of delayed vaccinations and preventive care, rescheduling postponed and elective procedures and of hospital closings and provider retirements.
With new transparency regulations set to take effect in January (and over the next few years, pending the outcome of litigation), employers should also focus on educating employees about the importance of shopping for care and understanding price differences. Few employees are aware that the cost for a medical procedure or product can vary widely – even within the same geographic area and plan network. While online medical cost estimators can help employees can get a snapshot of what a procedure is likely to cost them, it’s important to explain how they work, what the information means, and how the employee can use that price information to make informed decisions about their care.
By leveraging old and new channels continuously, employers can keep smart health care spending top of mind for employees throughout the year. The more consistently employees receive information, the more likely they are to use it and improve their health literacy overall.
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Are Communications Personalized?
According to the 2020 consumer survey mentioned earlier, respondents who have engaged in 1:1 conversations with benefits experts say it is the most helpful way to learn about their health benefits options and how they relate to their health care needs. Imagine if employees had access to this advantage all year round.
Employers should consider partnering with a health care advocacy firm, which can provide 1:1 support for employees year-round. Advocates can answer questions about medical bills, determine if a provider is in-network, arrange a second opinion and explain what is covered under their health plan. This real-time, year-round access can drastically lower out-of-pocket spending for the employee – and reduce costs for the employer – as well as gradually increase employee health literacy for a lifetime of cost-effective decision-making.
Open enrollment evolved this year – requiring more virtual offerings and personalization – and employees’ year-round communications should follow suit. By understanding 1) employees’ current level of health care literacy, 2) where there are communication gaps and 3) if employers are using personalization to its fullest potential, employers can put together a comprehensive communications strategy for 2021. As the health care landscape continues to shift, employees will have more questions than ever about using their care cost-effectively. By solidifying themselves as allies at every step of the way, employers can make a big difference in the lives of employees and their families.
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