Low-income earners not only prefer the help of a benefit adviser when choosing enrollment options, new research shows expert help could greatly improve understanding and engagement from this population for whom employee benefits could prove critical.

Wide disparities between higher- and lower-income households exist in terms of financial preparedness and knowledge about health insurance and benefits enrollment, which unfortunately also correlated with fewer low-income earners enrolling in benefits, the 2015 Aflac WorkForces Report found.

“With wage increases failing to keep pace with rising health care costs, many employees, especially those in lower-income households, are one serious medical event away from financial hardship,” says Matthew Owenby, senior vice president, chief human resources officer at Aflac. “This not only has an effect on employees’ health and financial well-being, but it can also reduce their company’s productivity through increased absences and employees who are distracted on the job.”

See also: When having insurance isn’t enough

The 2015 Aflac study finds that lower-income employees, who are the least protected against the financial costs of unexpected medical expenses, may not be taking every step they can to safeguard their health and financial security. These employees spend less time researching their options – half spend less than 30 minutes – which could lead them to make hasty benefit decisions and costly mistakes, the study says. As a result, they may have less understanding of how their major medical insurance works, including newer plan options that are rapidly being adopted by employers.

Only 19% of those in lower-income households say they are extremely or very knowledgeable about high deductible health plans, compared with 37% of those in high-income households. And, only 20% of employees in lower-income households say they are extremely or very knowledgeable about flexible spending accounts, compared with 51% of those in higher-income households.

“It’ s clear from the study that the lower income employees are less knowledgeable about benefits in general  and when offered employee benefits only 60% of lower income employees take them,” says Owenby.  “If you compare that to higher income, it’s 80 to 81% that enroll.”

Benefit advisers, he says, are a vital employee resource that can help “bridge this gap.”

What’s more, he adds, while the majority of employees prefer to enroll in benefits online, the majority of low-income earners prefer to enroll with expert help.

Tailored enrollment help

“You have to understand the enrollment preferences of your workforce,” Owenby says “We know that if employers have clear, conscientious and easy to understand communications about benefit offerings, employees are more likely to enroll. We are big believers that benefit advisers can be meaningful here.”

Sharing examples with employees about how benefit offerings can help in specific situations, he says, is vital.

“They need to have examples about how a major injury or illness can affect you in other areas, including with the mortgage payments, time off from work, etc. It’s not just about paying the hospital bills,” he says.

Benefit advisers need to spend more time with employees using examples of what could happen and how each benefit could be useful in the situation, Owenby adds.

See also: 10 things employers think make a great broker

The online study, conducted by Research Now on behalf of Aflac between January and February 2015, surveyed 1,977 employers and 5,337 employees at small, medium and large U.S. companies, shedding light on how employees at different ends of the household income spectrum are responding to the continued high cost of health care and the shift to greater consumer control over, and responsibility for, medical expenses.

The Aflac study shows that 78% of employees in lower-income households have less than $1,000 for out-of-pocket costs associated with unexpected serious illnesses or accidents compared with 19% of employees in higher-income households.

 “Year after year, the Aflac WorkForces Report consistently shows that lower-income households remain on the brink of financial chaos in the event of an unforeseen debilitating injury or illness,” Owenby says. “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss that this quality-of-life issue impacts individuals and employers in a negative way. Whether a family has major medical coverage or not, the majority of respondents are unprepared for the financial burdens that can result from unexpected medical situations.”

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