Employers losing confidence in readiness levels ahead of 2019 open enrollment start dates

Just when employers should be crossing the open enrollment finish line, many are realizing that they have several more steps to take. For the second month in a row, the overall open enrollment readiness score for employers with 2019 Q1 start dates dropped. In fact, the score took a considerable nose dive, falling from 54 in October to just 48 in November, according to the latest data collected by Employee Benefit Adviser in its monthly Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark (OERB) survey.

“What I’ve been hearing from advisers is that the unwarranted optimism in late summer coming into the fourth quarter on the part of employers just did not match up with reality. Many employers really thought they had a handle on things when they actually did not. So, what you’re seeing is employers coming to grips with the fact that they didn’t have everything buttoned up exactly the way they need it to be,” said Jack Kwicien, managing partner at Daymark Advisors, a Baltimore-based consultancy that works with benefit advisers to build their practices.

Indeed, employers now are recognizing that they are struggling to complete many tasks that should have been checked off the “to-do” list quite some time ago. Communication is proving to be especially troublesome. Consider the following: The score for planning/designing employee communications, a preparation activity that should have been completed months ago, came in at just 37 in November – an 11-point drop from the score of 48 in October and a 13-point decline from the September score of 50. To arrive at these scores, the OERB tracks 26 open enrollment activities and asks employers to submit self-assessments of the progress they have made in each.

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

“A large percentage of employers seem to be dealing with some type of communication gap. Many employers really dropped the ball with respect to communicating with their employees in an effective manner and communicating early enough. As a result, employees coming into the open enrollment event do not have a good understanding of their current benefits selections and what changes their employer might have made in the past year. It’s really quite glaring,” Kwicien said.

Not surprisingly, when asked about challenges they have faced in the past month, many respondents specifically cited communication issues such as:

• “Communicating benefits to members.”
• “Making sure that employees know that they need to re-enroll in flexible spending plans.”
• “Communication and helping everyone understand.”
• “Communication channels and getting the word out.”
• “Communication errors that need to be fixed.”
• “Making sure everyone realizes what the plan covers. Generally making up the knowledge gap.”
• “Communications with our employees while rolling out a new benefit model.”

These communication shortcomings are coming to light as employers are being forced to come to terms with the fact that many employees are now struggling with the enrollment process.

“It’s the end of the year and employers now are feeling the heat of the moment. They are actually being confronted with questions from employees. As a result, they are coming to the realization that they did not effectively communicate in advance and that’s why they are so swamped with questions. Employees are bombarding owners and human resources leaders with questions such as: ‘How do I complete this form? What does this change in eligibility mean for me? Can I keep my current physician if I change plans?’ So, they are inundated and overwhelmed,” Kwicien said.

While communication appears to be an especially troublesome area, employers also are struggling with a variety of other tasks that should have already been completed. For example, the score for reviewing compliance/eligibility issues came in at 39; documenting worker feedback at 38; and measuring enrollment engagement metrics at just 33.