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Winter 2013: Strategies for Benefits Communications

Open enrollment always poses a communications challenge. But this year, you face an additional hurdle – the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Employees will have a lot of questions concerning the new law and how it impacts them. That puts you, the employer, on center stage – which can work to your advantage. The new legislation gives you an opportunity to communicate to employees the value of the benefits you provide, highlight the strengths of your benefits programs, and provide an explanation of the ACA while drawing comparisons between your company benefits and those offered by plans on ACA exchanges. It's a great opportunity, but also a significant challenge.

We can help you overcome that challenge by working with you to create communications that do the following:

Explain the law simply and concisely.

Many employees will go online to see if exchanges offer them benefits at a lower cost than what you provide. By giving your employees a clear understanding of the ACA and what you offer, you will take an active role in helping employees determine whether they are better off keeping their employer-provided benefits. Make sure, for example, that employees understand they don't have to go to the exchange if they have company health benefits. And if they don't have coverage – whether it's been lost, declined, or not previously offered – employees need to understand the requirements of ACA compliance.

Focus on the most immediate changes.

Future provisions of the ACA may have an impact on the benefits you offer, such as the "Cadillac Tax" on high-cost health plans, and the implementation delay for small businesses. These provisions are important, but talking about them now will only add to confusion. Instead, focus on the positive changes– and tout your current benefit offerings that come from the ACA such as the requirement to cover preventive services and the elimination of out-of-pocket maximums. Even if employees have heard about these topics before, they will be reassured to hear about them from you as well. It will strengthen employee confidence in your HR department.

Clarify the difference between company benefits and those offered on the exchanges.

Custom benefit statements can help employees understand the value of company benefits, because you can show the amount spent on health care on a per-employee basis. By stating the value of health coverage in dollars per person, you demonstrate your commitment to employees on a personal basis –the level where it resonates best. This is especially important for employees who may be eligible for a government subsidy on the exchange. Subsidy-based savings make the government look good. But showing lower out-of-pocket costs with company benefits makes you look even better.

In addition to cost, you can also use exchange levels – the "metals" – to help employees understand and appreciate their benefits. If the benefits you provide fall into the gold or platinum range assigned to exchange plans, you can leverage the government's marketing efforts to your own advantage.

Similarly, don't let employees be falsely impressed by an exchange-based subsidy. If you pay any portion of employee benefits, you've been doing the same thing all along – giving employees a subsidy. And not with all the selective and complex criteria imposed by the exchange. Eligibility for employee benefits is usually based on one criterion – working for your company – which means virtually all employees can take advantage of company benefits and cost sharing.

Drive your point home with numbers.

Provide clarity on deductibles, copayments, and premiums. Give employees step-by-step instructions on how to file a claim through an FSA, HSA or an HRA. Many employers provide HRAs to employees who don't understand how to use them. The result can be higher costs to employees through under-utilization of benefits, which prevents full appreciation of benefit value.

Emphasize your commitment to providing health care in the future.

Emphasize the availability of any wellness programs, how they can reduce health care spending, and conversely, how costs will likely be higher for employees who do not take advantage. Wellness programs have enormous potential to change employee behavior, increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, and lower long-term health care costs. Effectively communicating your wellness program offering will make it more compelling. Help employees find support through associated health care providers, as well as educational resources offered by vendors and third-party administrators – all of which increase the likelihood of wellness program participation.

Most importantly, remind employees that you value them.

You provide health care benefits to attract talented employees, and to stay competitive. But in so doing, you also create a sense of community. By promoting the wellness of employees along with their spouses and children, you create a deeper connection – one that can make a company really feel like a family. So tell your employees that you value them, and that you care about their well being.

Whether through benefit statements, open enrollment communications or wellness initiatives, keeping the communication lines open will let employees know you care.

Employee benefits are going through an unprecedented period of complex and rapid change, and BeneCom Associates is here to provide the materials that you and your employees need to achieve the best possible outcome.

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