Benefits administrators have an important role in informing employees of coverage offerings and how multiple benefits can work together. But oftentimes, especially in these days of employer cutbacks and cost-saving measures, that role falls to the employee benefit broker or adviser.

Administrators must be "in the know" on overall trends and new resources, including communications tools that may help them clearly explain benefits values during conversations with employees.

If administrators don't fully explore all available benefits education tools, then employees are more likely to make uninformed coverage decisions for themselves and their families. In fact, almost 90 million Americans - 39% of adults - are limited in their abilities to read and understand health information, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey.

Benefits education, through clear communication, is a simple step toward effective benefits selection, lower costs and employee satisfaction.

Before administrators participate actively in benefits conversations with employees, they should have an understanding of how their workforce likes to receive communication. For example, are company employees on-the-go and in need of electronic information? Would the workforce appreciate benefits podcasts they could listen to at home with their families? It is also important for administrators to be aware of the tools that can help educate them and, in turn, they can share the necessary resources with employees to effectively guide communication.


Online tools

There is a variety of online tools and websites dedicated to educating administrators, such as Stay Smart | Stay Healthy, a Humana-sponsored website, which offers a suite of "e-tools" (mostly videos) that creatively explain benefits coverage provided by Humana plans. For example, one video explains the value of voluntary benefits and the potential cost savings it provides for employees and employers alike. Another video provides tips to help people save money on health care costs by choosing in-network doctors, paying for premiums with pre-tax deductions, considering generic prescriptions and more.

For administrators and employees, these videos help educate and improve health care literacy. If Americans had a better understanding of health, we could save the U.S. health care system $106 to $203 billion annually in literacy-related expenses, according to research from the Center for Health Care Strategies.

When administrators are informed of benefits changes, current offerings and how their employees want the information, it is time to start the conversations. Social media, often thought of as an external channel, can be an effective internal channel, too.

Four out of five adults who are online use social media, according to data from Forrester Research. Forrester also found that 35% of adults online use social media to look for information about their health and related issues. The two-way platform is ideal for benefits questions and answers between administrators and employees.

Because health benefits are a personal matter, tapping internal social media resources lets employees ask questions and share concerns with administrators in a comfortable, conversational way. This builds a trusting relationship between both parties and lets employees know there is a person to whom they can turn for advice.

To make the most of this new way of engaging with employees, administrators should consider starting a blog or online forum. They should let employees know about these new available resources and allow employees to drive content on their own.

In addition to an online forum, employees still benefit from in-person discussions, especially when they are personal one-to-one conversations. Humana has found this to be true with our own employees through our More Options and Choices for Humana Associates (MOCHA) Mentor program. "MOCHA Mentors" is a service provided by volunteer employees who help other employees navigate the annual open enrollment period and even help explain voluntary benefits.


On the go

Perhaps the fastest growing communications channel for administrators to consider is mobile Internet. When people aren't talking on their smart phones, they're using them to post updates on Facebook or Twitter and to text their friends. Mobile Internet, for the sake of benefits, allows employees to have on-the-go access to coverage information, care providers, claims processing and more. People now expect all information to be available at their fingertips, and insurance companies are taking notice.

For example, MyHumana, a health and benefits management app, allows members to access personalized health insurance information anywhere, anytime. The app has been well received by employee members and it was recently honored with an "Appy Award" by as the "Best Medical App in 2011." MyHumana provides personalized plan information for members so that they can understand the coverage they already have and how they have been using their benefits. In turn, this helps them make more informed health choices in the future.

Simplify the message

Benefits communications and enrollment have come a long way in a relatively short time. Companies used to explain health benefits through complex brochures and other types of traditional media filled with industry jargon and "legalese." Unfamiliar language is one of the main reasons employees fail to understand their health coverage.

Consumers today increasingly are filtering out complex messages in favor of clearer, more relevant ones delivered through new, engaging communication channels. It's helping to educate consumers on the health care system by removing complexities and replacing them with transparent, clear communication.

New communications channels are also assisting administrators by helping to educate them on employee needs and benefits offerings. Administrators, in turn, provide added value to employees while also helping to lower company costs through voluntary benefits enrollment. Ultimately, these evolving communication channels are creating a more personalized care system and happier workforce because employees understand which benefits to select for their needs.

Bierbower is chief operating officer for Humana Specialty Benefits which includes dental, vision, life, disability and worksite voluntary benefits.


Working with EDIs

In high school, I remember sitting for hours typing documents on printing shells for my school's Ditto machine. A decade later, armed with my expert office skills, I was processing enrollment forms by hand. Years passed, and I started keying enrollments into vendor online systems. Then came the loadable CSV or Excel spreadsheet for open enrollment sent directly to a carrier.

This century is very different. We've developed online benefit portals and with only a few keystrokes, a complete file is sent on an electronic data interface (EDI).

Over the past year, I've been knee-deep in EDIs. I've learned that everything is not always as it seems. Interface files were designed to speed up delivery, automate enrollment changes and streamline communications between the provider and customer. But if you're not paying close attention to what is being sent, or what is being processed on the other side, disaster strikes. In many cases, providers do not deliver processing reports, but rather, the client is expected to log into a website and grab reports. If these reports aren't monitored, and errors aren't corrected, it could mean dollars down the drain.

Employers don't want to deal with COBRA penalties, terminated members left on a plan or unhappy new hires who don't get their enrollment cards on time. But if you ignore any of your benefit EDI processes, that's exactly what you'll get. Let's say an employee moves from full-time to part-time and loses benefits. A loss in coverage results in an opportunity for COBRA. Our system tends to be testy at times - if information isn't entered just right, they won't show up on the feed, and that's a problem for me. Likewise, I have to make sure our COBRA provider has their system rules set up correctly. If I have end-of-the-month coverage and they send notices out with the wrong dates, the result is a whole lot of grumpy ex-employees.

Breakfast used to be about Froot Loops. Now, it's fresh coffee and analyzing loops of data. I know more about 834 file types, FTP gates and file encryption than I ever intended to. My days are filled with audits, data sampling, test scenarios and I now know the VLookup Excel function like the back of my hand.

- Karrie Andes, SPHR, senior benefits manager for PGi in Kansas City, Mo.

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