Over the years, voluntary benefits or worksite products have unfortunately earned a negative reputation in the marketplace. This is largely due to overzealous carriers with aggressive sales tactics and brokers purely seeking higher commissions.

With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, employers began to shift more of the benefits cost to employees via high-deductible health plans, increased coinsurance costs and copays. The majority of today’s workforce is comprised of millennials, coupled with Generation Z quickly entering the workforce. There’s no question: traditional employer benefit offerings are about to undergo some major changes.

With a new administration in place and increasing generational challenges, employers are becoming more open to creative ideas to improve their total benefits offering. Today’s voluntary benefits market isn’t shy of options, which in turn makes things quite confusing. Companies will need to shift focus from traditional offerings and begin to get more resourceful — not only with the products they offer, but also with their entire strategy. Communications, enrollment and marketing will all become especially critical in retaining and attracting top talent in the coming months and years.

For the most part, the majority of brokers and employers are somewhat familiar with the top voluntary products in the market: dental, vision, accident, critical illness, cancer, hospital indemnity, disability and life insurance. Those are traditionally the products that spark initial voluntary benefit conversations, although there are many more — including legal, identity theft, auto/home, pet, employee purchasing programs, unemployment gap, tuition and loan assistance programs.

For the remainder of 2017, the conversation is predicted to still involve the top voluntary products, but shift to a new focus. Nearly two thirds of employers are looking to voluntary benefits to reduce overall financial stress on employees, the 2016 Xerox HR Services Financial Wellbeing & Voluntary Benefits Survey found. Integrating voluntary benefits with core benefits may reduce financial stress that ultimately leads to health issues and higher overall benefit costs.

Also see: Why employers should offer a limited number of voluntary products

The main goal of these products is to provide employees with cash resources, paid directly to the insured, should they experience an unexpected life event. Insureds can use these payments for anything they choose: mortgage, rent, groceries, deductibles, coinsurance payments, copays and more. Compared to state disability programs, these payments are generally made more quickly and offer a simpler claim filing process. If an employee is faced with a difficult situation, these conveniences can greatly reduce stress during a highly sensitive and vulnerable time.

Financial wellbeing is the focus
A recent Employee Benefit News article found 89% of millennials are interested in receiving financial advice, yet only 58% have been offered this type of assistance. With the majority of the workforce now comprised of millennials, employers will need to offer more diverse benefit options that are tailored to this population.

Millennials aren’t the only ones who are concerned about their financial wellbeing. The MetLife’s U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study found 49% of employees are concerned, anxious, or fearful about their current financial situation, 72% said that a customized benefits package increases loyalty and only 27% are satisfied with their progress toward paying down student loans. These statistics demonstrate the immediate need for a comprehensive voluntary benefit offering.

Student loan debt is an issue for all generations in the workforce. Whether the individual is a millennial trying to get established and create wealth, a Gen X employee who is struggling with existing student loan debt family debt and saving for retirement, or a baby boomer who is trying to help support the family’s educational needs — namely children and grandchildren — everyone, at some level, has a need for student loan assistance.

Also see: Voluntary benefits key to helping employees with rising health costs

Additionally, most voluntary products offer wellness benefits, which is a direct payment to the individual for completing an annual wellness exam. With amounts ranging between $50-$200 (employer selected), this is pure profit to the individual, since ACA requires preventative exams to be covered 100% by insurance carriers.

In addition, this benefit helps to subsidize the actual cost of the product annually. There are carriers in the market that will pay this benefit multiple times in a single year for a single insured.

Increasingly, companies are getting involved with wellness specific initiatives and incentives for their employees to hopefully drive healthy habits that will, in turn, lower healthcare costs and increase workplace satisfaction. To promote these wellness programs, employers offer reduced pricing on their medical plans or make contributions into a medical savings account if employees complete their annual exams or participate in various wellness activities. Offering voluntary products with a wellness benefit is another way to enhance a company’s total health portfolio at no cost to the employer.

Carrier selection Is key
Like many other industries, this business is all about relationships. Brokers and employers need to be able to trust and rely on their voluntary benefits carriers. As HR staffing has shrunk and brokers are required to provide more services with the same resources, it’s imperative that the appropriate carrier is selected for each unique case.

Voluntary benefits, as “cookie-cutter” as we may perceive them to be, are just not that. Since their onset, voluntary benefits have come with administrative obstacles that have historically taken up too much of HR’s time.

Unfortunately, while these products do provide a valuable benefit to employees, they are not the priority for most employers. Employers don’t often care about how many products they are offering as long as the plans aren’t administrative-heavy, the 2016 Employee Benefit News annual survey found. Carriers recognize this issue, and have steadily made improvements to these processes over recent years.

There are carriers in the marketplace today that allow clients to self-bill and self-pay, which is essentially what employers are already used to doing on their basic and supplemental group life and AD&D plans. For claims issues, they have also made this process easier by making it electronic and not requiring extensive information from the employees in the claims-filing process.

Core carriers (traditional medical carriers) are also beginning to get into the worksite market and are further simplifying the claims process by linking their medical system with their voluntary system. This allows the carrier to proactively initiate claims and file complete claims for the insured since the majority of the claims information is already within the single carrier system.

Also see: Employers can save big bucks by offering telecommuting

The other benefit to offering voluntary plans with the core medical carrier is that often some products may provide additional benefits if employees have a certain medical condition. For example, voluntary dental plans will provide more cleaning exams per year if an insured is pregnant. Most insureds would not realize they have this benefit, but by linking these systems with a core carrier, the insured makes sure to get the most out of their plan.

Communication style and strategy are imperative
Not only is it important to consider the products and carriers that are offered, but also how they are enrolled and communicated. From the voluntary benefits perspective, these products have typically been enrolled face to face with employees. While this may be the best way to fully educate employees on their benefit options, that is no longer the future of employee benefits enrollment.

ACA has also helped enrollment move to the electronic platform because of the requirements made on employers for reporting. Millennials are the technology generation, making them naturally comfortable using technology to enroll and learn about benefits and even be treated by a virtual doctor.

Employers are trending toward a more self-service enrollment environment, which brings its own challenges. Most of these systems are built with decision tools that allow for the enrollment experience to be customized to the employee. These tools will make plan recommendations for the employees based on the answers to health and financial questions. Often, videos within the enrollment site are used to further enhance the educational experience.

Some of the main problems with electronic enrollments include keeping employees engaged, offering voluntary benefit products and carriers that work with the system, keeping costs low or free for the employer and ensuring data accuracy and security.

A company’s overall benefits package is becoming increasingly important in the decision-making process for prospective employees, as well as to retain top industry talent. Employers, rightfully so, are concerned about cost and maintaining this delicate balance while still attempting to manage the complex administration of these plans.

More and more, employers are looking for voluntary benefits to solve this need by offering “free” technology and enrollment solutions to their groups. There is no doubt that if employers want to retain and attract top talent, they are going to have to adapt with the market and offer their employees a wide array of benefit options and new technology that is tailored to their employee needs.

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Whitney Ehret

Whitney Ehret

Ehret is a voluntary benefits specialist and senior account manager at Burnham Benefits Insurance Services.