Open minded Featured

8:55am EDT November 2, 2005
More choices, more decisions, more confusion. That’s what the open enrollment period must look like to many employees these days. The choices are greater than ever, but so is the complexity.

The open enrollment period — for many companies, a few weeks in the fall when many employees get to choose their health plan coverage for the following year — is more important than ever and much more difficult to navigate.

“It is not uncommon for employees to be faced with five or 10 choices, and, in many instances ... the range of choices can stagger even an expert,” writes David Mechanic, director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

What is remarkable is that Mechanic wrote those words in 1989, long before health reimbursement accounts (HRAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and myriad other variations that have spun off traditional HMOs and PPOs in the past decade. Staggering, indeed.

To meet the needs of employees during open enrollment, employers have traditionally held events designed to focus their employees’ attention on health-related issues. The conventional wisdom is that such events are a painless way to get employees to think about their health coverage.

The need to generate that kind of thinking has never been greater. Historically, employers have favored passive enrollments (where employees do not need to take action to retain their previous year’s coverage), but now the trend is moving away from that.

Many employers require employees to make a choice or risk being enrolled into the company’s default plan, which may not be the best match for their needs. More employers want their employees to be aware of their health care options and to examine them in order to make the best possible choices.

Moreover, in recent years, employers have been asking their employees to share a greater portion of health care costs, whether it be through increased co-pays, higher deductibles or premium increases. When more involvement is expected, employees want to know more about how they are allocating their money.

The increase in out-of-pocket expenses has spurred interest in tax-advantaged savings and funding accounts such as HRAs and HSAs. Again, the more employees know and understand about these options, the better.

All of these trends have one thing in common: The onus is on employees to learn the most they can about their health care options and coverage, which means there is also an onus on employers to transmit that information.

What’s also obvious is that all of the learning cannot possibly take place during a few weeks once a year. To some extent, the education that goes on during open enrollment should extend through the entire year.

How can that be done? For one thing many health promotion and education events could be just as attractive and informative if they were held at various times throughout the year.

Consider in mid-year:

  • Health screenings

  • Health education sessions

  • Health benefits fairs

  • Informal Q & A sessions with benefits experts from the health plan

  • Distribution of published informative materials

  • Easy online links to health benefits information

Surveys show that employees consistently say they want more information. The challenge for employers is how to present that information in interesting ways that resonate with employees all year long.

Michael Taylor is executive director, marketing and corporate communications, for UPMC Health Plan. The Health Plan, with more than 435,000 members, is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s integrated medical delivery system and is the only provider-led health plan in Western Pennsylvania. Reach Taylor at (412) 454-7534.