Employers play catch up ahead of open enrollment season

Many employers are putting one foot in front of the other and are steadily moving toward reaching a state of open enroll­ment readiness. Yet, a surprisingly large number are still not hitting the needed pace.

This dichotomy becomes apparent when reviewing the latest data collected by Employee Benefit Adviser in its monthly Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark (OERB) survey. The OERB tracks 26 open enrollment activities and asks employers to submit self-assessments of the progress they have made in each. For June, overall readiness for employers with 2019 Q1 start dates rose to a score of 39, up from just 35 a month ago.

However, many employers are still not on solid footing with respect to open enrollment preparation, with a score of 36. Indeed, a significant number of employers have not yet planned/designed employee communications (score of 15), reviewed compliance/eligibility issues (34), set goals (38) or documented processes/procedures (33).

Employers who participated in the OERB study specifically called out “Pinning down the plan design and making final decisions in order to begin to develop the communications and design the enrollment tool” and “Designing communication [on] how to help employees understand plan changes” as top challenges.

Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark
Overall Readiness
Phase
Activity
Readiness
Progress
Phase Readiness

Phase 1

Benefit Plan Design

Phase 1

Benefit Plan Design

Phase 2

Open Enrollment Preparation

Phase 2

Open Enrollment Preparation

Phase 3

Open Enrollment Management

Phase 3

Open Enrollment Management

Phase 4

Open Enrollment Design Analysis & Follow-Up

Phase 4

Open Enrollment Design Analysis & Follow-Up

Indeed, to get on track, employers need to address such issues as soon as possible, according to Jack Kwicien, a managing partner at Daymark Advisors, a Baltimore-based consultancy that works with benefit advisers to build their practices.

“The reality is that if an adviser hasn’t been proactive, and the employer has not been proactive, it will become a fire drill as the open enrollment period is going to take place in about 60 to 75 days,” Kwicien said.

Even if employers are behind the curve, advisers can still help them prepare for the open enrollment period. While it might be too late to conduct full-fledged strategic planning sessions, advisers can work with employers to make the open enrollment process more manageable. To do so, advisers need to meet with employers and tell them, “Here are two or three action steps that we can take and implement right now,” to ensure a smooth process, Kwicien said.

Perhaps most important, during these sessions, advisers need to work with employers to jointly address foundational issues such as whether they will make a change to the 401k plan, add voluntary benefits or promote employee utilization of the wellness program.

“It may not be the perfect case scenario, but advisers must work with employers to make certain decisions now. They can’t postpone them,” Kwicien said. “The adviser needs to be quarterbacking the relationship and demanding that the employer makes important decisions now to at least get this year’s open enrollment event on track.”

Taking the lead, of course, is in the best interests of advisers, Kwicien emphasized. “Think about the flip side: If advisers are not proactive now, they’re going to be on the defensive in another 45 days. Because when things start getting really intense, employers are going to turn to the adviser and say, ‘Why didn’t you help us avoid this in the first place?’” Kwicien said.

Advisers should concentrate on helping employers with the open enrollment communication process.

“The adviser should be working with the employer to say ‘OK, whatever we’ve done in the past two to three years still hasn’t been as effective as we can make it in terms of communicating with your employee population,’” Kwicien said.

Doing things differently could include scheduling additional in-person staff meetings or one-on-one sessions where each employee spends 20 to 30 minutes with a benefits counselor reviewing the current benefit selections and options for the upcoming year. When employers are dealing with a geographically dispersed employee population, online meetings can be conducted. In essence, advisers should be working with employers to “do anything that engages the employees to help them better understand what their current benefit selections are and what they’re options are for the upcoming year,” Kwicien said.