How HR can support employees during open enrollment

One-on-one benefits conversations also allow employees to ask specific questions that they may not get answered when referencing online materials or asking friends, family, and coworkers.


With open enrollment season upon us, HR teams are preparing to educate and assist employees with enrolling in their benefits offerings. As cut-and-dried as this may sound, employers have a critical job on their hands.


2023 Optavise Healthcare Literacy Survey reported that only 68% of employees are entirely confident in understanding how their plan works. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills—meaning most Americans don’t have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.


There are three things HR teams should keep in mind as they prepare employees to make more informed health care plan choices and effectively use their plans year-round.


1) Consider employee demographics and needs

Every employee is different, which means HR teams must take into account things like life stages, educational and cultural backgrounds, and health status when approaching benefits education. Messaging must be both broad enough—and targeted—to meet the needs of as many employees as possible.


For instance, consider that different age groups will have varying levels of knowledge about benefits based on their experience with choosing and using coverage. For example, the survey found that 80% of baby boomers and 76% of Gen X understand health care terms and how they relate to their coverage, whereas only 68% of millennials and 60% of Gen Z knew the same information. This suggests that communications to these younger generations should take a more “return to basics” approach to ensure they understand key terms and concepts and what they mean for their out-of-pocket costs.


Additionally, employees have differing coverage priorities based on their health care needs. If they’re relatively healthy and only see the doctor for an annual physical, a less expensive plan with a health savings account might be right for them, since preventive care is covered at 100%, and they can set aside funds on a tax-advantaged basis if they do need more extensive care in the future. If they’re planning on having a baby or having surgery next year, they might prefer a plan with a lower deductible or higher coinsurance. Providing employees with multiple scenarios and examples can encourage them to consider what options might make the most sense for them.


2) Leverage the personal touch

Many employees want to learn more about their health care benefits, but too many are turning to less-than-ideal sources for that information. Sixty-eight percent report that they are learning about their health care coverage from online resources, and nearly half of employees turn to friends, family, and coworkers to fill in the gaps. Given the questionable accuracy of many websites and the fact that most individuals are NOT benefits experts, it’s unlikely that employees are getting the information they need to make informed decisions.


While employers continue to use a variety of channels to communicate about benefits, the Optavise survey showed that employees made the most use of online tools, print materials, and email. However, employees did not find these channels particularly useful: Only 68% of employees reported online resources to be very or extremely helpful, and only 49% reported email to be very or extremely helpful. Conversely, group or one-on-one sessions with HR or benefits experts were generally well-received: Of the employees surveyed, 84% reported they found such sessions very or extremely useful.


One-on-one benefits conversations also allow employees to ask specific questions that they may not get answered when referencing online materials or asking friends, family, and coworkers. Frequently asked (but nuanced) questions include things like the relationship between the premium and the deductible or whether they’ll be hit with a surcharge. By having conversations about their current medical needs or family situation, employees can best determine the most reasonable option for them. One-on-one sessions are also a great opportunity to review any voluntary benefit offerings that the employee might not be aware of. In fact, employees who participated in such meetings were far more likely to supplement their employer-sponsored coverage with voluntary or buy-up coverage (46% vs. 33% of those who did not speak with an expert).


For larger organizations that might not be able to support 1:1 sessions with HR, using an outside benefits education and enrollment firm might fit the bill.


While 1:1 sessions aren’t attainable for everyone, HR can ensure that online and print materials supporting enrollment are appealing, engaging, and informative. Liberal use of visuals, simple, easy-to-understand language, “bite-sized” content, and examples can go a long way toward encouraging employees to read about and learn more about their benefits. It’s never too late to issue an FAQ; make use of Teams, Slack or similar collaboration tools, or post one-page handouts in breakrooms—get the word out in as many ways as possible.


3) Remember, decision-making doesn’t END with enrollment

Once employees have chosen their coverage during enrollment, it’s important to remember they will be faced with making important health care decisions throughout the coming year. Where to seek care when they need it (their doctor? A retail clinic or urgent care center? The ER?), whether to go in person or seek a telehealth visit, where to go to get their prescriptions filled or a test done—all can have serious implications for their out-of-pocket costs and the employer’s health care budget as well.


This requires ongoing communications throughout the year—starting right after enrollment—to ensure employees are equipped to make smart decisions. Remind employees of the options available to them—and share the relative cost of each. Explain that there is no one set cost for any medication or procedure—and how to compare costs for prescriptions, tests or even surgeries. Be sure to promote any support tools or services that might be available—whether external websites, independent or carrier-based transparency services or other educational resources. Again, actual examples can help grab employee attention and make the impact of their decisions “real” to them.


To bridge the health care literacy divide, HR teams must tailor their benefits education initiatives to the unique requirements of each employee as much as possible. Considering demographics and experience with the open enrollment process and benefits, in general, will help HR teams craft messages that resonate with their workforce—and choose the most effective communication channels. This personalized approach adds valuable context to the available options, helping employees make informed decisions that align with their specific needs and circumstances year-round.


Kim Buckey, VP of Client Services at Optavise


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