The rising cost of healthcare has driven
an increasing number of companies
toward high deductible health plans (HDHP). In 2002, just 2 percent of companies opted for HDHPs, according to data
collected by Watson Wyatt Worldwide; by
2008, 47 percent of the surveyed companies
had switched to the plans or added an
HDHP to the their medical plan offering.
Current 2008 health savings account
(HSA) requirements for HDHPs feature
high annual deductibles, a minimum of
$1,100 for individuals and $2,200 for families, but they also differ fundamentally from
traditional plans, because they require
employees to be savvy health care consumers and to take responsibility for their
own wellness. Those new responsibilities
just add to the change management challenge for employers.
“Health insurance is constantly evolving
in an effort to manage rising costs, and
HDHPs are a growing cost control
approach,” says David Kang, Texas Communication Practice Leader for Watson
Smart Business spoke with Kang about
how to create and execute an effective
communication strategy around the change
What are employee concerns about HDHPs?
Unless employees understand why the
change is necessary and how it may benefit
them, most tend to see the move to HDHPs
as a reduction in total rewards. This leads
to low morale, possible work force unionization, but most importantly, low engagement, which reduces employee productivity and company profits. It can also result in
the turnover of key employees, who might
turn to another company with a similar plan
but a better communication approach to its
What constitutes an effective communication
An effective communication plan will
have specific goals that are aligned to a
company’s HR strategy and key business
imperatives. The next step is to establish a
communication process and identify the
media that will reach the targeted audience, execute and then measure the plan’s
With HDHP plans, much of the communication needs to be centered around
employee education and managing employee expectations, because you’re teaching
people new concepts and a plan design that
may be quite unfamiliar to them.
Employees need to understand three key
components: the health plan design, how to
be smart health care consumers and how to
manage their own wellness. To communicate these components to employees effectively, you need a comprehensive plan.
What are the best communication tactics?
Initially, the CEO should announce the
change to the company and explain the reasons behind it, and have his or her senior
leadership team on board with the concept.
Next, HR should lead the education
process with the support of line managers.
Based on our research and experience,
face-to-face communication invites personal interaction and opportunities to field
employee follow-up questions to effectively
manage the education process.
Employees won’t grasp all the new concepts and nuances at once, so employers
must be prepared to provide educational
tools not just prior to enrollment, but
throughout the year. We find electronic
media such as: videos, Flash videos and
Podcasts to be very effective channels to
reinforce key messages and sustain the ongoing employee education process. Post
these materials on the company intranet if
possible since people learn at different
paces and they may need to review the
What’s the timing for the communications
Ideally, launch the marketing aspects of
the plan one year before open enrollment.
Train your managers first so they can be the
change agents and educate employees with
HR’s support. Once the new plan is in place,
CEOs can monitor the plan’s effectiveness
by reviewing employee HDHP adoption
rates and their participation rates in complementary behavior change and risk
assessment programs. Conduct focus
groups and include questions about HDHPs
in the company’s employee satisfaction survey to gauge the plan’s effectiveness and
employee attitudes about the change.
What messages should be communicated to
employees about HDHPs?
Start with the positives. Preventive care is
often fully covered and employees’ health
care premiums may even decrease. Employees should feel more empowered to
manage their own health with an HDHP,
and if you provide employee incentives
around weight loss and smoking cessation
as part of the program, they should feel supported in their quest to live long, healthy
lives. Effective communication is not a silver bullet for the rising cost of health care,
but it will educate employees and help
them understand the reasons behind the
change to an HDHP.
DAVID KANG is the Texas Communication Practice Leader for Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Reach him at (214) 530-4201 or