Open enrollment Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

It is October, which can mean only one thing — open enrollment season has arrived. This is an important time of year for employees as they have the opportunity to make additions, changes or deletions to their health benefits elections.

As health care costs continue to rise, however, many employers have had to pass this burden on to their employees through higher premiums or decreasing benefits, resulting in greater out-of-pocket costs. Some employers have even changed insurance carriers in an effort to reduce health care spending. Additionally, a new era of consumer-directed health plans has expanded the role that employees play in managing their health care decisions.

These trends, among others, have made open enrollment a confusing, frustrating and overwhelming experience for some employers and their employees.

“Open enrollment season can be a stressful time of year,” says Bill Berenson, senior vice president of Aetna’s Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. “As insurance carriers, we have the ability to ease employers’ anxiety by working with them to find the health benefits plan that best suits their business.”

Smart Business spoke with Berenson, who offered tips to employers on what they should consider when making decisions related to their businesses’ health benefits.

How do you recommend employers approach open enrollment?

As you approach open enrollment, establish your organization’s goals. Do you want everyone enrolled by a certain date so that ID cards arrive in early January? Is your company switching to a consumer-directed health plan (CDHP) and, if so, what information needs to be communicated to employees?

Based on your goals, create a workable timeline so that employees and managers have the right information at the right time. For example, if you are working with your health insurance carrier to offer new online tools, make sure your IT team is at the table early. Also, make sure you give employees enough time to assemble, analyze and discuss plan information with family members before the enrollment deadline.

What are the benefits associated with implementing a wellness program?

A wellness program can offer employees a wide variety of services, such as discounts on memberships at fitness clubs or home exercise equipment and weight loss or weight management programs. Smoking cessation programs and discounts on alternative health care options, such as herbal and natural remedies, vitamins and nutritional supplements, as well as massage and acupuncture therapy are also available. These discount programs are not insurance, but are free, added features to many insurance plans.

Wellness programs and discounts won’t just help employees get healthier — they will also help maintain the ‘health’ of a successful business. Programs that promote good health can impact worker satisfaction and productivity. They can also reduce costs related to health benefits claims, sick leave, absenteeism, disability and workers’ compensation, making them an important recruiting and retention tool.

How important is access to online resources?

Tools and information are a key component of any CDHP, so if your business is switching to one of these plans this open enrollment season, make sure your employees have the information they need to make educated, informed choices. Find an insurance carrier that provides secure interactive tools that allow employees to access their own personal data and find other relevant health-related information, such as price and performance comparisons between doctors and hospitals.

What do employers need to know about integration?

Simply put, benefits work better when they work together. Integrating data, systems and medical management across the spectrum of benefits products, including medical, dental, disability, behavioral and pharmacy, allows your insurance carrier to take a more holistic view of the individual members of your work force. As a result, your carrier can more easily identify those employees who are most at risk for certain health conditions and take action to see that their needs are met.

Integrating systems is also important in the administration of benefits, which is why a growing number of insurers have developed self-service, Web-based tools to make it easier for employers to update and change member enrollment information. These tools provide online access to member eligibility information for medical, dental, pharmacy, and life and disability coverage. They give employers the ability to expedite online member additions, terminations, life event changes and selection of benefits.

These tips will help put you on the path to a successful open enrollment. However, employers should ultimately look to their insurance carriers for assistance as they are ready to work with you to help you establish the right blend of benefits features, employee contributions and marketing efforts to achieve your enrollment goals.

BILL BERENSON is senior vice president of Aetna’s Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or