Getting past employee hostility during open enrollment

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What do you do when an open enrollment session turns hostile? At a recent benefits meeting with the employees of a food and beverage company, disgruntled employees confronted benefit adviser Rachel Miner over the company’s new high deductible health plan. In a recent interview, Miner, who works with EB Advisors of the Carolinas and whose 11 clients range from manufacturing and engineering companies to private schools, told Employee Benefit Adviser how she responded to the employees’ concerns.

In her remarks, Miner explains why blue and white-collar workers differ in their response to HSAs, and how a personal story can help allay employee fears. Miner declined to name her client and her comments have been edited and condensed.

Employee Benefit Adviser: You faced some challenges at a recent open enrollment meeting. Tell us about it.

Rachel Miner: This group renews on May 1 for all types of benefits—medical, pharma, voluntary and retirement—everything.

They are a food and beverage firm with around 500 employees spread out over 17 different locations in North and South Carolina. They have three different shifts, so I held three one-hour meetings at each location; one at 5 am in the morning, one at 5pm in the afternoon and the last at 10pm at night. That made for 24 meetings last week, and I have more next week.

EBA: What's the biggest challenge at those meetings? The employees face a lot of decisions about HDHPs and pre-tax HSAs and FSAs. How do you keep from overwhelming them?

Miner: This industry makes it so confusing. We have HSAs, HDHPs, FSAs – we have an acronym for everything. I try to make it as basic as I possibly can.

I also try to make it personal. I tell them stories about how I've been affected by healthcare to try and educate them. For instance, my husband and I were on two separate plans. Normally we’re extremely healthy, but last year my husband had an emergency appendectomy, and I tore my hamstring in two different places. So we incurred $14,000 in medical expenses and that’s out of pocket costs.

I know the healthcare system way better than other people do, and I still was impacted by it. So the first thing is I try and do is make everything extremely relatable.

EBA: What else do you do?

Miner: The second thing is a challenge. I was catching people coming off their shifts at 5am. Some of these people are so dead tired that they are downright pissed off. They moved two years ago from a really rich PPO plan to a high deductible health plan. It wasn't done under me; it was under a different broker. I took over the group in December.

Part of the challenge is that you have to win people over to your side, so they can trust you. I had some meetings that started off with people tearing into me before I even got going.

EBA: What did they say?

Miner: “This plan sucks, you're robbing my family, you're stealing money out of my kids mouth.”

And I was like, “Listen, I'm here to do two things. I'm here to educate you on your plan, and I'm here to save you the most amount of money possible.” I told them, “If you're on board with those two things, you're going to want to listen for the next hour.”

One of the things that I did during the meeting was that I gave everybody time to download the HealthJoy app on their phones, if they hadn't already done so. Just by getting them to log onto it [they heard] other people in the room say, “I used this last week one night when my daughter was sick, and it was awesome.”

You need to get a couple of people who are going to be your advocates. All of a sudden it makes the meeting way easier.

EBA: Are employees more frustrated since the advent of the high deductible health plans?

Miner: Yes, depending on the demo group. I work with a lot of blue collar workers, and I find it satisfying to help people who desperately need help. If you talk to a room full of lawyers about being smarter consumers, to be honest, they have so much money sometimes they don't even care. They don't even listen.

EBA: They have an emergency fund and they have a high paycheck ...

Miner: They say, “why do I care of I hit the $5,000 deductible, I have a million in the bank, no problem.” But when you talk to someone who has $37 in the bank about how to save money, they get excited.

My more professional groups don’t let me bring in innovations. They bleed blue. They love Blue Cross Blue Shield, and they don't understand the value of anything beyond the name of the network. They don't listen.

EBA: How do you handle a hostile work group? Is the HR executive or head of benefits in the room? Do they see this level of passion?

Miner: In a couple of meetings, a couple of HR managers were there, and it’s good for them to see it, because it shows them that I really care about their employees. I'm not trying to feed them a line; I’m not giving them a corporate shtick.

What I am going to tell them is our plan is what it is today, and we're trying to take the cost of healthcare—which has gotten out of control—and bend that cost curve down. If we can, hopefully we can make your plan richer, or we can give you better benefits that'll help you not have to deal with the financial burden of hitting a deductible or hitting a max out of pocket. The goal is to get them onboard for being smarter consumers, and then the sky's the limit; they can improve benefits down the line.

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