How technology can improve benefits communication

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BOSTON — For all the work that benefits administrators put into improving workplace plans and developing new programs for employees, those efforts can fall flat if the message doesn't resonate with the workforce.

So communication is key, experts agree, and technology can help get the word out, even in traditional, analog industries that are used to doing things on paper.

Paula Cofone, Rhode Island's deputy personnel administrator who oversees the state's office of employee benefits, described her organization's recent effort to update its healthcare benefits program. That upgrade included the rollout of new plans, a jolt to a system which had long offered just one plan, she said at a conference hosted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

In that case, the state was moving to a model where employees would shoulder more of the costs for their healthcare through higher deductibles, co-insurance or higher out-of-pocket maximum payments. Previously, employees didn't have to think much about their healthcare — there was the state plan, and that was that. Now, workers would have decisions to make, and a slew of new vocabulary to learn.

"The way that employees had previously looked at the health plan was the state took care of it," she said.

Cofone's team leaned heavily on technology to manage the transition, beginning with a new, dedicated website with information to help employees navigate the features of the new plans, which included new plans for more cost sharing for members.

"The biggest thing that we decided was that we needed a new website and that website was going to really be the place for people to go," she said.

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But Cofone's office decided that a simple website with static information wasn't enough. They wanted something more engaging, where employees could actually game out scenarios to determine which level of deductible or out-of-pocket maximum was best suited for them. Their solution was the chatbot Alex, a "virtual benefits counselor" developed by Jellyvision, a benefits communication software vendor.

"We were looking for a fun, interactive way for employees to learn about the plans and by putting in basic enrollment information and usage information they could get suggestions on our plans," Cofone said.

She deems her department's tech-driven communications effort a success, if a preliminary one. All told, some 7,000 Rhode Island employees engaged with Alex on the state's website, and 86% of the workforce successfully enrolled in a plan online.

"It's not ending there. We're already looking forward to this year's open enrollment," Cofone said. "Communications efforts cannot end — they must continue."

Meantime, at the Heartland Health and Wellness Fund, a health plan serving union workers in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Michigan, administrators are similarly looking to technology to get the word out.

Eric Mueller, the fund's wellness director, said his office has taken pains to ensure that they are reaching employees where they are spending more of their time online: on their mobile devices.

"Having a website is great, but if it's not mobile friendly or mobile optimized it can be difficult for the participants to access," Mueller said.

His fund even contemplated going full mobile and developing a dedicated app that participants could install, but ultimately decided against it, both on account of the cost and concerns over whether participants would actually use it.

"I think one of the challenges you get with a mobile app is when you download an app on your iPhone or whatever it is how long do you actually keep that app?" Mueller said.

"Most of us, we're only going to keep it if we're using it month after month after month," he said. "If it's something related to benefits, and you're a generally healthy person, yeah, you may download the Anthem app just so you can find a provider, and then you're probably not going to us it again for three or four months."

Mueller's fund has also embraced a variety of social media channels to help communicate with plan participants. But at Heartland, the organization has designated a full-time employee to stay on top of its various Twitter, Facebook and Instagram output, a luxury not every benefits shop enjoys.

But for social media to be an effective communications channel, a benefits shop needs to post frequently and consistently, Mueller argued, otherwise participants will simply ignore it.

"Just thinking about tweeting and Instagram and Facebook, it takes a lot of dedication, just to keep going with it," he said.

In Rhode Island, Cofone said she would like to lean more on social media and other technologies to engage with employees, but she acknowledges that any communications strategy has to be tailored to the ways that participants actually receive information. It's an important point for any benefits manager to consider, and in the case of Rhode Island state employees, social media might not be the answer.

"Our employees," she said, "and I don't say this disrespectfully, but it's the truth — I think that they're technology challenged."

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