An increase in the offering of consumer-driven health care products has not translated into increased understanding on the part of consumers — exposing a need for employers and benefit professionals to better communicate to employees how their benefit plans work and what value they have.

Adoption rates for high-deductible health plans, health savings accounts, and health reimbursement accounts continue to rise, yet consumers, even those who have such plans and accounts, don’t fully understand them. Only 30% of HSA account holders passed a basic HSA proficiency quiz as part of a survey for Waltham, Mass.-based Alegeus Technologies’ 2014 Consumer and Employer Healthcare Benefits Survey. With a 50% pass rate on the flexible spending account proficiency quiz, FSA account holders did not score much better.

The results point to a significant consumer education gap and a need for more educational assistance from benefit advisers and other professionals, as well as innovative tools to improve employees’ understanding about their health care plans and choices.

There’s a need to help consumers “understand how these accounts work and how to get the best value out of them,” says Steve Auerbach, CEO of Alegeus.

Benefit advisers, he tells EBA, “are exceptionally well positioned to be that driving force to help employers and the employees get the whole value of these accounts, maximizing and optimizing their tax savings and simplifying the health care process.”

That’s particularly true, because employers typically offer only limited benefit support. Sixty-five percent of employers communicate about health benefit enrollment only during the open enrollment period, and nearly 60% rely only on plan summary documents and enrollment forms to communicate benefit plan/account options, the report says. Only a third of employers offer interactive tools such as plan comparison calculators.

Communication disconnect

Auerbach says advisers are more important than ever because employers seem to have a disconnect with their employees about the quality of their benefit communications. Employers often think they’re doing a better job than their employees perceive they are, the Alegeus survey found. In their assessment of the quality of various aspects of employer benefit communications (clarity, depth, format, personalization and frequency), consumer ratings were consistently 20% lower than employer ratings

MetLife’s 2014 U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study found a similar disconnect, often times with employers and employees actually agreeing that certain educational tools could be useful, especially during benefits enrollment, but still not being offered by the employer.

For instance, 63% of employees said group in-person meetings would be helpful during benefit enrollment periods, yet less than half (48%) provide them. Fifty-one percent of employees said benefits webinars would be helpful, yet only 11% of employers offered them; 63% of employees said a company benefit website would be helpful, yet only 18% of employers provide it; and a whopping 94% of employers agree that one-on-one in-person meetings are an effective tactic to engage employees in benefit enrollment, but less than half provide it.

Benefit advisers can help reduce that communication disconnect, Auerbach says, by working with an employer to develop the most effective way to communicate with its unique population of employee consumers.

Harry Gottlieb, founderof the Chicago, Ill.-based Jellyvision multimedia company and The Jellyvision Lab, an interactive agency, suggests some simple steps to improving employee communications such as avoiding terms like “eligible employee” in favor of something like “you” in communications to employees. Just that simple language change can “go a long way toward making their benefits more engaging and far less bewildering,” he says.

Gottlieb says advisers also need to keep in mind that employees have individual needs and concerns, and that “a one-size-fits-all communication strategy doesn’t work.”

“Keep the group presentations short, and hit only the biggest concepts that everyone will care about.  Then focus your efforts on efficiently answering individual questions truly individually,” he says, adding that he’s a “big fan of well-written FAQs and email help-desks.”

“Few employees wake up in the morning wanting to become insurance experts, but they still want to make good benefit decisions — they do. When they feel confused, frustrated and disengaged, though, making good decisions is hard,” he says. “One of the greatest services you can provide your clients is to make open enrollment easy on their employees. Don’t force them to learn about topics that don’t matter to them, and keep everything simple.”

The Alegeus survey found that consumers really value account features that simplify the health care funding experience. More than 65% ranked debit cards and multi-channel (web/mobile) account access as “extremely valuable,” while 60% said they “highly value” self-service features such as the ability to submit claims via mobile devices. Seventy-five percent of consumers said they value integration of benefit accounts and insurance claim data to streamline the process of reviewing and paying. 

Employer satisfaction

Increased education and improved employee communication are doubly important to employers, as new research finds employees who better understand their benefits also appreciate their employers more.

According to data released in July by Unum, employees who receive education about their employee benefits tend to be more satisfied with their benefits — and ultimately their employers. Benefit advisers working with employers can stress the importance of benefits education on employee satisfaction and how that translates into better employee attraction and retention.

The survey results show employee satisfaction with their benefits continues to closely relate to satisfaction with their employer. More than three-quarters (77%) of those workers who rate their benefits package as excellent or very good also rate their employer as an excellent or very good place to work. By contrast, only 17% of employees who consider their benefits package to be fair or poor rate their workplace as excellent or very good.

Also, 79% of workers who rated the education around their benefits as excellent or very good also rated their employer as excellent or very good — compared with only 30% of those who said the education they received was fair or poor.

“This research underscores the value of an effective benefits education plan because when an employee understands their benefits, they tend to value them more and in turn may then value their employers more for providing access to them,” says Bill Dalicandro, vice president of the consumer solutions group at Unum.

The Unum research reiterates recent findings from the Aflac Workforces Report that small business employees are not only dissatisfied with their employer’s benefit offerings but also willing to take a pay cut to work for an employer offering better benefits.

Unum’s online survey of 1,521 working adults, conducted by Harris Poll, finds that only half (49%) of U.S. workers rate their employer as an excellent or very good place to work and less than half (47%) of employees who were offered benefits by their employer rated their benefits as excellent or very good. This is the lowest rating of benefits in six years of conducting the research.

The survey also shows employees do not feel they are getting the information they need about the benefits they’re being offered. Only 33% of employees who were asked to review benefits in the prior year rated the benefits education they received as excellent or very good — a drop from 2012 and a reversal to the upward trend in ratings since 2009. In addition, nearly three in 10 (28%) rated their benefits education as fair or poor.

“With health care reform and other changes in employee benefit plans, employees have so much information to digest right now,” explains Dalicandro. “Employers can play such a great role in helping their employees understand their options so they will feel comfortable making benefits decisions.”

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