For employees, the value of voluntary benefits can sometimes be “lost in translation” during an often hectic and complicated open enrollment season for health insurance, which is why some benefit advisers are working with employers to move ancillary benefit enrollment off-season.

In fact, with the increase of high-deductible plans and employee concerns about rising health insurance costs, it’s more important than ever employees fully understand how their employer’s voluntary benefit offerings can supplement their medical plan, according to Tye Elliott, vice president of broker sales at New York-based Aflac.

He says the strategy of mid-year enrollment for voluntary benefits is becoming a more popular strategy with benefit advisers for that very reason.

“It’s becoming more popular because benefit advisers are using voluntary benefits more strategically now than they have in the past,” he says. “Whereas in the past, voluntary benefits were an additional benefit, it is very much becoming part of the overall health care strategy for the employer.”

One of the disadvantages of having the initial introduction of voluntary benefits during open-enrollment, he says, is they “get lost in translation.”

“If you can introduce the voluntary benefits separately off-cycle and you’re solely focused on voluntary benefits, you have a little more time and ability to have [employees] understand what those voluntary benefits mean and their value,” he says.  “Typically, then, you get a lot higher participation.”

“From a strategy perspective it makes sense at times, but not all of the times, to have that off-cycle enrollment, particularly if there are a lot of changes going on with medical during annual enrollment,” says Monika Shvetz , manager of enrollment communications for MetLife.

Also, if a voluntary product is new and has never been offered before, she says, “an off-cycle enrollment can really focus employee attention on the new voluntary benefit offering and allow a great communication and education plan to help them make a confident buying decision.”

Not for everyone

While benefit experts agree the mid-season enrollment strategy for voluntary benefits may be beneficial for some employers, they also agree it’s not appropriate for all employers or even for all voluntary benefits.

Amy Hollis, voluntary benefits leader at Towers Watson, says the use of a mid-year enrollment approach should depend on two things: What the voluntary benefit plans are being offered and what the employer is looking to accomplish with those plans.

In fact, she says she agrees she’s seen an increase in the number of employers choosing to add voluntary benefits to the core benefits package to offset changes to medical plans. But, typically, she says she’s seen these benefits introduced during open-enrollment as a solution to those medical benefit changes or new gaps in coverage.

There are some lines of insurance, however, she says, when the off-cycle enrollment is more appropriate. For example, group auto and home or pet insurance.

“You want to make sure the employee sees the full purview of everything that’s being made available,” Hollis says, “but it may make sense to launch those plans or communicate those plans at different times throughout the course of the year.”

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