By Joann Davis and Karen Gustin, LLIF, Ameritas Group
Communication is more than just providing information.
Communication is a tough job, especially when it comes to educating employees about their benefits.
Healthcare benefits plans often comprise many details and instructions. The challenge for business leaders is to take complex material and make it easy for employees to understand so they can understand the value of their benefits and make appropriate decisions for their families. This process requires considerable mental energy, and some sweat equity, to break large amounts of information into shorter, simpler messages.
Don’t give up too soon
Every day you have many compelling projects competing for your time. Employee benefits communication can be a wearying task. After sharing the same information multiple times it’s easy to convince yourself that enough has been said and its time to move on to something else. However, don’t forget an important axiom of communication: When you’re getting tired of communicating a message, your audience is just starting to catch on.
Recent employee surveys indicate significant dissatisfaction with employers’ communication of benefits. With the spiraling costs of healthcare benefits, many employers are requiring employees to take greater responsibility for their benefits, such as participating in wellness prevention programs that encourage them to make healthier lifestyle choices and improve their physical well-being. Employees also are expected to pick up more of the cost of their health benefits, and many employers are switching to voluntary plan options.
Employees are overwhelmed by the complexity of the information about their healthcare benefits and the weight of responsibility for making the right choices for their families. Employers need to do more than just distribute packets of information. They need to invest more time to thoroughly communicate benefits to employees.
Provide resources for employees
If you needed a new appliance for your home, would you walk into the closest store and buy the first model you see? Would you spend more than $500 for a new set of tires without checking to make sure they’re the right size and style for your vehicle?
Since money doesn’t grow on trees, most Americans invest a considerable amount of time evaluating their choices before spending a significant amount of money on a new purchase. They’ll talk to their friends for feedback on their recent buying experiences, get online to review consumer information about the products, visit several stores to explore various models and options, and read sales literature. Most people want high value for their purchases. They don’t want to end up with a lemon.
Employees are unsure where to get accurate and unbiased healthcare information and how to evaluate their benefit options. They’re uncertain how to predict the cost of a knee replacement surgery or a carpal tunnel procedure, or how to compare physicians or hospitals for quality of care.
Most employees are intimidated by the idea of asking their physicians about other treatment options, or even bypassing their doctor and exploring remedies on their own. They are uneasy about making decisions that could significantly affect their health or that of their families.
This level of uncertainty and resulting anxiety means employers need to educate employees on their benefits choices, and provide the tools and detailed information to assist them in evaluating medical care services and costs.
Eight tips for communication success
Extensive communication is required to enable employees to be informed participants in their healthcare decisions. Here are eight suggestions for enhancing communication efforts:
• Initiate employee benefits communication programs six months in advance of the enrollment period.
• Target messages to reach different groups of employees.
• Develop printed materials that explain plan options clearly and concisely, with resources for additional information. Include charts that illustrate the cost impact for various individual or family plans, and suggestions for finding the most cost-effective, high-quality care options.
• Develop a regular communication schedule, using different formats and locations, in order to break through the communication clutter and reach employees with key messages.
• Offer 24-hour access to comprehensive plan information via the company Web site. Ensure that information is easy to find and understand.
• Evaluate employees’ needs and provide information about benefit choices and options at key life stages.
• Remind employees about major life events, such as a marriage or the addition of a child, when they need to re-evaluate their benefit choices.
Work with the right partner
Another critical component of a strategic benefits plan is to seek out insurance carriers that can be a partner in providing the right mix of plan features and coverage levels, communicating the benefits options to employees, and successfully administrating the plans.
Many employers wonder whether the insurance carrier selected for healthcare benefits really makes a difference. The answer is, “Yes, definitely.” All carriers are not the same. Each has different strengths, capabilities and business philosophies. Few carriers have the flexibility to design a range of plans, and some offer canned options with a few set features to minimize administrative work.
Look for carriers with experience in working with companies similar in size and market scope to yours. It’s important to evaluate the carriers’ reputation in the community, claims processing and customer service, flexibility in plan design, reputation with other employers, depth of network providers, business philosophy and spectrum of plans.
Provide communication, not just information
National surveys indicate that employees want to have a greater role in their healthcare choices, but they need to thoroughly understand their options in order to assume more responsibility for their decisions. Employers can help employees understand their benefits options by providing consistent and informative communication with detailed examples through a variety of methods, along with directions for accessing information and resources.
JoAnn Davis is senior group representative for Ameritas Group Dental and Eye Care in Ameritas Group’s Durham, N.C., office. Davis has been a professional in the insurance field for more than eight years.
Karen M. Gustin, LLIF, is vice president-group marketing and managed care for Ameritas Group, working in the Lincoln, Neb., headquarters. Her tenure with Ameritas Group spans 23 years. She’s involved with the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP), serving on the board, foundation board and chairing the Statistical Task Force.