Open enrollment is usually a challenging time for employers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity, forcing employers to modify many aspects of their business — including open enrollment.
In short, open enrollment is a period of time during the year when employers allow employees to make elections or changes to their benefit plans — such as health insurance, flexible spending accounts and ancillary benefits. Typically, employers hold open enrollment sometime in November or early December, and the process usually lasts two to four weeks.
Changes to open enrollment and how employers can navigate them
First, prior to COVID-19, many employers were already using some type of software to streamline and simplify human resources processes. Online benefits portals, which enable employees to elect, change and manage their benefits from anywhere and at any time, were increasingly commonplace. But with more employers transitioning to remote work because of COVID-19, virtual open enrollment has become even more important.
Tip: Be sure to use virtual communications channels that let you promptly reach employees wherever they are. This is key to ensuring timely open enrollment. Virtual communication methods include email, websites, chatbots, texting, social media, video, mobile apps, online benefit fairs and PDF benefit guides in flyer or brochure form.
Second, employees’ benefits priorities have shifted sharply due to COVID-19. Besides wanting more online benefit options and fewer paper flyers, employees are increasingly focused on health and well-being. They are more concerned with benefits that can improve their physical and mental health — such as flexible work, mental health support, remote work, dependent care assistance, financial education and disability protection.
Tip: Try to gain an understanding of the wellness benefits that are valuable to your workforce and incorporate your offerings in your open enrollment process. As OE approaches, communicate the availability of your wellness programs, and make sure employees know when and how to sign up.
Third, COVID-19 has escalated the use of telemedicine, which is likely here to stay. Telemedicine is a viable option for people with minor health conditions. Moreover, studies show that telemedicine can help people avoid expensive emergency room services. For employees, telemedicine delivers quick access to care and eliminates travel costs for in-person doctor visits. This helps employees return to work faster.
Tip: A Business Group on Health survey found that nearly all employers offer telehealth services (for minor, acute conditions) in 2021. Additionally, 91% of employers offer “telemental health” services. So, if you haven’t done so yet, consider making telemedicine part of your group health plan, and include it in your open enrollment promotions.
Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred regulatory changes in some employee benefit plans, such as group health plans, health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts and health reimbursement arrangements.
Tip: Keep regulatory developments in mind when planning for open enrollment.
Finally, consider integrating benefits education in your OE strategy. Although employees are showing an increased interest in their benefits, many have difficulty understanding their options.
The key takeaway is to keep track of practical and regulatory changes so you can smoothly adapt.