The key to success with voluntary benefits is focusing on the end result and goal that comes from introducing the products to a workforce — not the products themselves, Mike Meredith, executive vice president at Willis, told attendees Thursday at Employee Benefit Adviser’s Workplace Benefits Mania.

“Not voluntary benefits for voluntary benefits sake,” he said. By focusing on the outcome of offering such benefits, “it’s a clear message to employers [that the decision to offer them to employees] is an obvious choice and makes a lot of sense.”

The first challenge, Meredith said, is to communicate the value of the products effectively so that they appreciate and understand them from the get-go. With that process, an adviser must keep in mind which age groups and demographics they are targeting, he said. “Who we have to communicate to is extremely important.”

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There are at least 10 compelling reasons to offer voluntary benefits, Meredith said, and an employer needs to understand every one of them before moving forward in the voluntary sales process.

Those 10 reasons include, but are not limited to:

1) Fill benefit gaps

2) Provide high-quality communications

3) Communicate wellness, disease management or other employer initiatives

4) Clean up participant eligibility data

5) Provide efficient enrollment for core benefits

6) Provide efficient enrollment for voluntary benefits

7) Conduct a dependent audit

8) Communicate the value of current benefits

9) Provide administrative/ben admin platform for year-round service

10) Ensure consistent benefits communications year-round

Offering voluntary benefits can help an employer create a budget for benefits communication like they have never had before, Meredith said. Additionally, he said, in the process of setting up voluntary benefit systems, many enrollment firms will run a dependent eligibility audit for employers. “I haven’t run into one employer yet that believes their eligibility is 100% accurate,” he said, adding that one Willis client recently saved $1.2 million with a dependent eligibility cleanup.

“If the focus is here [on the 10 items listed] it’s pretty hard not to get this to make sense … they can fund a lot of things” for employees through voluntary benefits, Meredith said.

One client, Boar’s Head, went through a dependent eligibility audit in the voluntary benefits rollout process, he said, and “that one thing alone was worth a tremendous amount of money to the organization.” In fact, the company had been planning to increase the cost of benefits for employees, but thanks to the audit, Boar’s Head was able to save enough money to keep costs steady.

A steady pace

While all of these goals are noble, an employer “can’t take everything on in the first year,” Meredith cautioned. Instead, he recommended picking a few to focus on each year, such as better benefits communication or increased FSA participation, for example.

Getting a proper program off the ground can be a tedious process, he said, but it’s critical that an adviser and client built out the details, goals and get vendors aligned ahead of time, Meredith said.

“When it’s actually set up and running administratively it’s so much easier on the employer,” he said.

While a bit of a controversial issue, Meredith insisted when initiating a voluntary enrollment results will be “far better” if an employer requires employees to call into a call center to enroll. He doesn’t recommend using the word mandatory, but adds it is “puzzling” that an employer will spend a large amount of money to establish a program, “but they’re afraid to ask them to do something” to benefit.

Another Willis client, NCH Healthcare System, also had “phenomenal results” in implementing voluntary benefits, Meredith said. In order for employees to receive the company’s rich plan at a low cost, they needed to participate in several initiatives where appropriate, such as biometric screenings, health risk assessments and disease management programs. Not only was 92% of the population engaged, but the cost per employee also went down 14%, he said, even though the company’s wellness spend went up by $1.2 million in the process.

“We’re dealing with numbers, but we’re saving lives,” Meredith added. For example, when more than 400 employees got colonoscopies as part of their screening tests, 230 came back with pre-cancerous polyps that could then be treated. Additionally, the company saw a 25% reduction in time away from work due to illness.

The whole NCH initiative was launched, promoted and provided education all around the voluntary benefits program, Meredith said.  These are “exciting things we can do that bring a profound impact,” he added.

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