Open enrollment best practices in the ACA era

Corporate Synergies

October is here and you know what that means: it’s open enrollment time for many health and welfare plans. For human resources professionals and group employee benefits administrators, this is a critical, busy (and sometimes dreaded) period. And we all know that open enrollment this year is historically different as we work to continue to implement provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Open enrollment is an opportunity to guide and empower employees to make educated decisions about their health insurance. However, that isn’t what always happens. For many organizations, there is room for improvement. Changes in the healthcare and insurance landscape due to the ACA are creating more confusion, so it’s arguably more important than ever to execute a first-rate open enrollment program.

With that in mind, below are open enrollment best practices that can help ease your burden and help your plan participants to make informed decisions about their group benefits:

  • Develop a project plan. As they say, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Your project plan should begin with a clear statement of what you’re trying to accomplish through your employee communication messaging — what you are trying to get your workforce to understand and to do. Your project plan should include timelines, deadlines, and assignments that make it clear who’s accountable for what. Details matter, so be sure to get into each and every important tasks.
  • Start enrollment communications early and send multiple reminders. By using short, scheduled messages released over the course of several weeks and months up to, during, and after open enrollment, you can deliver your message with what corporate marketing departments would refer to as a “drip campaign.” Generally speaking, employees are not paying as close attention to open enrollment as you are, so plan on communicating in short, frequent bursts. This is particularly true if you’re introducing something new, such as a wellness initiative or a Consumer Driven Health Plan (CDHP).
  • Keep it simple and understandable. Effective employee communications materials are plain-spoken and not filled with insurance jargon. Remember, these messages are not going to industry professionals, they’re going to laypeople who don’t spend their workday thinking about insurance. I know of one employer that distributed a 35-page benefits document the day before open enrollment, an unreasonable expectation for their employees. Employees who receive plan-related documents in one large information dump are more likely to gloss over details and make choices they’ll regret later.
  • Tailor your communications to your employee demographic. Know your audience, use language that will resonate with them, and consider communicating through their preferred “channels.” In other words, some employees prefer to receive materials mailed to their homes, while others are more comfortable with an email. Both are communications channels. An emerging communications channel is social media, which is particularly useful for employers with younger employee populations. Social media has been very successful in the retail market and for other workforces with limited computer access. Text messaging is another channel. One study1 showed that 80% of people use their cell phones for texting and 56% have internet access through their smart phones. If your workforce fits this profile, consider sending open enrollment meeting reminders and other information through text messages.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to educate. Open enrollment is an opportunity to make your plan participants better consumers of healthcare. A change in contributions and other plan alterations must be carefully communicated. If you are introducing a CDHP, for example, understand that this is a difficult topic for most employees to comprehend. They often have preconceived notions about CDHPs and immediately think high deductible. Therefore, start early with an employee education and communications that describes the features and benefits of CDHPs. A campaign that is broken into small, digestible chunks can help eliminate the fear of the unknown, especially when you’re shifting additional benefit cost to plan participants.
  • Promote wellness initiatives. With the ACA’s focus on wellness, many organizations are looking for ways to improve workforce health and lower costs. Seven out of 10 employees say health and wellness programs positively influence the culture at work.2 But to reach that level of acceptance, you need a robust employee education and communications plan. If you’re promoting wellness, be sure to allow enough time for people to accomplish any associated tasks. That is to say, if you’re requiring biometric testing for a reduced contribution, don’t let employees know about it two weeks before the deadline.
  • Include spouses. If your plan extends benefits to spouses, consider inviting them to open enrollment meetings. Or send benefit materials home to increase the likelihood they have the information they need to support enrollment decisions.
  • Consider multi-lingual communications. Depending upon your employee population, consider providing materials in multiple languages.
  • Get upper management involved. You want executive endorsement so that plan participants take open enrollment seriously. A letter or email from the CEO can make a real difference in the workforce’s overall understanding of the employer’s commitment to their physical and fiscal health.

Above all, remember that open enrollment is an opportunity to communicate with and empower your employees. By taking advantage of this opportunity, HR and benefits professionals can have a dramatic positive impact on their business. Here’s the real bottom line: the best employee communications strategies don’t start and end at open enrollment—they continue throughout the year.

1Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Survey
2Virgin Health Wellness Survey Report, June 2013


  • The Rise of Consumer Driven Health Plans
  • Minding the CDHP Out-of-Pocket Expense Gap
  • Turning Employees into Active Insurance Consumers

©2015 Corporate Synergies Group, LLC. No part of this material may be republished or distributed without prior written consent.