Over the past several years, employers and insurance providers have transitioned from paper-based enrollment processes to digital platforms. The benefits are abundant: higher level of personalization; easier and more timely access to benefits; and a more streamlined, efficient and controllable process. You get it. Yet along the way, we started missing a level of engagement seen during the “old days” of face-to-face meetings and paper-based enrollment. While voluntary benefits aren’t as well-known as core insurance benefits like medical and dental, we see a clear need for better communications, education and overall engagement. Before we delve into the five ways in which employers can better educate employees on voluntary benefits, let’s spend a little time exploring this evolution.
The ways of the past
For many years, enrollment for voluntary benefits such as critical illness and accident insurance, as well as core insurance offerings, was conducted primarily via a face-to-face enrollment session. This process involved a licensed and appointed enroller or agent using an enrollment technology specially tailored to the carrier’s benefits plans or via paper form.
As enrollment technology platforms became more accessible, employers moved away from using paper enrollment for their core benefits. This appealed to many employers. Why, you ask?
Provided a more streamlined process for enrolling in medical benefits
Expedited the loading of enrollment data into carrier systems
Offered employers more control over the enrollment process
With the move to enrollment platforms, the case for having onsite enrollers weakened dramatically. Brokers and enrollment firms went on a search for new “hooks”: dependent audits, beneficiary designation, and cleanup of demographic data. But it was clear the manner in which we processed voluntary benefits needed to change. We as an industry needed to change with it, too. Enrollments where the majority of employees were required to meet with an enroller to enroll in their benefits were the way of the past.
While there are many benefits to moving to a self-enrollment platform, voluntary benefits enrollment has suffered. Although voluntary benefits were growing in popularity, many employees were still not comfortable with the way the plans worked. Without a real understanding of the voluntary plans and how the plans can help them and their families, many employees will bypass the plans and participation will suffer.
How can we address this? I recommend the following five actions:
Define voluntary benefits for employees through better communications: I, and many others in the industry, struggle with the term “voluntary benefits.” What exactly does the term mean? Prior to ACA passage, weren’t all benefits voluntary? To lump in a critical insurance policy, which can provide much needed dollars to an employee in the case of a diagnosis of cancer, with an identity theft policy or legal policy in some ways diminishes the value that these policies provide. Perhaps the term “supplemental benefits” or simply calling the benefits by their names would be the more appropriate way to move forward. However, more important than what to call policies is describing the benefits in ways that employees can understand and using terms that establish links between the benefits and the employees’ out-of-pocket costs. Finally, terms and definitions should be easy enough so that even when an employee is reading on a screen, without an enroller present, they can understand the way the plans work and the value they can provide.
Integrate voluntary benefits programs into existing online platforms: Asconvenient as online benefits platforms are, if employees are redirected to other websites, it further complicates an already complex process, making folks less inclined to learn more about voluntary benefits. When the benefits are presented in the same environment as their medical and dental benefits, employees are more likely to take the time to review whether these plans may be right for them. The position of the plans also affects how employees view the benefits. Often, critical illness, accident and hospital indemnity plans are placed at the bottom of the election screen, next to legal plans and pet insurance. Consider placing these benefits closer to the medical plans where employees are more likely to make the connection.
Face-to-face sessions: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! While face-to-face sessions may not be the most efficient way to enroll in voluntary benefits, there is no doubt that it is one of the strongest communication tools we have at our disposal. For an employee, being able to ask specific questions in a confidential setting and getting answers in real time is priceless. Face-to-face meetings are not just beneficial for improving participation in VB plans. Talking about one’s health, family medical expenses or identity theft is deeply personal. As such, offering trusted advisors who are mindful of these sensitivities and showing empathy can go a long way toward better employee engagement. Face-to-face sessions can take on various forms including in-person meetings and video conferences. Consider using face-to-face enrollment for an initial enrollment and on an as needed basis.
Know the players: When a program is first implemented, we usually spend a lot of time educating the HR and benefits staff about the importance of the voluntary benefit program. Once the program is rolling, there is a tendency to step away and let the program run itself. However, we’ve noticed that participation in a plan is directly impacted by the people responsible for educating employees on the plans. When there is turnover in said position, it is very likely that some of the education about the benefits of the voluntary program did not transfer over. People typically come into a benefits position with an already formed opinion of voluntary benefits. If they happen to have a bad view of voluntary benefits or if they are simply not used to the benefits and don’t understand why they are important, they are less likely to take the time to explain to new hires and other people who may be looking for information. Therefore, it is important to know who your educators are and make sure they understand the value of the voluntary benefits program.
Encourage consumer education. We can talk about ways to improve employee engagement and understanding of voluntary benefits, but if they don’t take the time to educate themselves, our efforts will be largely wasted. But, if we build on the aforementioned items and increase employee understanding, we’ll likely see better informed health care consumers.
There you have it. While these recommendations are not a panacea for addressing all challenges associated with voluntary benefits, they should help with help with education and engagement efforts.