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How to demystify open enrollment

From leveraging technology to being transparent about cost hikes, experts offer tips for making benefits election a bit easier.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Open enrollment season is approaching for some, and despite all the work HR pros put into making sure the process goes smoothly each year, many employees remain stumped when they go to elect benefits.

When MetLife surveyed 2,600 full-time workers in July, around one-half (45%) said they still don’t fully understand elements of their benefits package. Jamie Madden, SVP of workforce engagement and benefits connectivity, told HR Brew in September that the confusion is driven in part by a lack of education. A majority (60%) of employees who regretted their benefits choices said a lack of understanding or information was to blame.

Experts offered HR Brew tips for demystifying the open enrollment process.

Be transparent. Healthcare costs are on the rise, due to factors like inflation, labor shortages in the healthcare sector, and the growing popularity of expensive new drugs such as GLP-1s for weight loss. Employers expect to see the average employee health benefit cost rise by more than 5% next year, according to a recent Mercer survey.

If your employees are going to see a change to their benefits package next year, such as a rate increase, it’s best to be as transparent with them about it as possible, said Cindy Najera, a senior principal management consultant with Helios HR, a consulting division of insurance broker and consultancy NFP.

“Year over year, benefit rates are increasing. There’s just no way around that, typically,” Najera said. “So, we want to see our employers really start to share some messaging around that with their employees.” Communicating not only about changes to health plans, but also what the organization is doing to mitigate the effects of cost hikes—such as reassessing benefits in the interest of making sure employees have access to affordable plans—is important as well, she said.

Amy Casciotti, VP of HR for screen-recording software company TechSmith, which is based in Michigan, said her team always provides context for employees to understand why certain changes are being made to their plans.

“Sometimes it’s because the benefit isn’t offered by that insurance company anymore, so we either had to select a different benefit or switch companies, or it could be that there’s been a substantial increase in something,” she said. “But just [make] it clear why we’re having to bring this up to them.”

Seek employee feedback. When surveying employees ahead of open enrollment, try to find out what’s important to your worker population, Najera said. “Is it lower copays when they go to the doctor? Or is it lower out of pocket [costs]?” Understanding where the majority of your employees fall on this spectrum can help inform renewal strategies going forward.

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Nearly one-half of HR leaders surveyed by consulting firm Grant Thornton in March 2022 said they planned to run an open enrollment satisfaction survey, seeking feedback on whether employees understand current benefit offerings, and the efficacy of the employer’s communication around open enrollment.

When designing surveys, Najera recommended seeking valuable information with which your team can make “actionable changes.” She also advised launching surveys well before your enrollment period in order to incorporate the feedback into your benefit offerings for the next year.

Leverage technology. When it comes to open enrollment, there’s no shortage of engagement tools HR pros might consider to simplify and streamline the process for employees, whether through a chatbot or video recording.

Melissa Hajjar, an HR management consultant with Helios HR, said many of her clients use benefits administration tools. These technologies, which are offered by software companies such as Ceridian, Jellyvision, and WEX Health, typically guide employees through a series of interactive questions to better understand medical needs for the coming year, and recommend a benefits plan for them.

Sometimes, benefits brokers will cover these tools for the employers they partner with, said Hajjar, so it’s worth looking into. The tools may also integrate with an employer’s HRIS system. “[Leverage] those partner relationships that you currently have to make sure you’re getting all of the resources that they can offer you,” Hajjar said.

Casciotti, worked with her team to produce a series of 5–7 minute videos about open enrollment when she realized 90-minute sessions weren’t effective at getting all of their employees to enroll (the company employs about 300 people).

In the years since Casciotti’s team started communicating about open enrollment via video, their enrollment has risen from 80% to 100%, she told HR Brew. The approach has been particularly helpful as TechSmith has transitioned to a hybrid structure.

“With a more dispersed workforce that isn’t all in the building, with HR all the time, it’s just increased a lot of efficiency on both sides,” she said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.