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Open Enrollment Strategies to Make Your Benefits Process Easier

women reviewing employee benefits

The benefits enrollment process can be complicated each year – both for your business and your employees. Choosing the right benefits plans can be confusing, and there can be lot of paperwork required. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to streamline the benefits enrollment process and make it more likely for employees to participate. By increasing overall employee participation, you are more likely to reap the benefits – from decreasing per-person costs to attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

What is open enrollment and why does it exist?

Open enrollment is the window of time that eligible employees are allowed to opt in or make changes to their existing benefits options each year. This can be an important time for employees to take advantage of new benefits, restructure their current offerings, or stop coverage altogether if a spouse or other family member now has access to comprehensive insurance.

Once benefits elections are made, they often cannot be changed for a year unless specific qualifying life events occur. For this reason, it's important that your employees understand their options during open enrollment. With many employees working remotely this year, it's important to know how open enrollment procedures may have changed compared to previous years.

What is the open enrollment period for 2021?

For the majority of Americans, the open enrollment period for 2021 will run from November 1, 2020 through December 15, 2020. However, 15 states have opted to facilitate their own state-run insurance exchanges. If you live in one of these states, your state has the right to set its own dates for the open enrollment period. Most of the states that exercise this option simply extend the enrollment deadline past December 15th. Minnesota gives individuals an extra week (with its open enrollment period running from November 1, 2020 through December 22, 2020), while California and the District of Columbia also start November 1, 2020 but extend the deadline through January 31, 2021.

Do health insurance plans have open enrollment?

Nearly all types of health insurance use some sort of open enrollment period. All employer-sponsored health programs use an open enrollment period, though employers may set an enrollment period for individual employees that begins and ends earlier than the federal enrollment period. This is often the case because employers want to have all the necessary paperwork completed before the federal deadlines. Health insurance plans purchased outside of an employer-sponsored plan also follow an annual open enrollment period that typically mirrors the period set by the state.

What is a special enrollment period?

If individuals miss the annual open enrollment period, they may be allowed to enroll in a health plan during a special enrollment period. Special enrollment periods are designated opportunities for individuals to change or update their current insurance plans or enroll in new plans if they experience a qualifying life event. These events are circumstances  that would impact the household's need for medical care, such as the birth of a child or the loss of a job that is currently providing health insurance. Special enrollment periods vary based on the type of qualifying event, but most periods last for the 30- to 90-day period after the life event occurs.

How to refine and improve your company's current benefit enrollment period

With the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are feeling more overwhelmed and confused than ever. To show support for your employees, it is important to be proactive in making it easy for them to obtain the protection they need to remain safe and healthy. With the federal open enrollment period around the corner, now is a critical time to review your open enrollment process and make sure you are adequately prepared to support employees.

As you are reviewing your benefits enrollment procedures, use this as an opportunity to further engage your employees and show them you are listening. Ask for input on what's working well and where there's room for improvement. For example, are there areas where employees are consistently confused or need more information? Identifying gaps and opportunities for improvement year to year is the best way to continuously upgrade your process.

And more doesn't necessarily mean better.

"Just because your health insurance carrier offers 20 different plans doesn't mean you have to offer that many to your employees," says Susan Draper, Paychex HR consultant.

When you have a sense of what your employees want, she adds, "pick two or three plans that meet the majority of their needs. This makes it easier for employees to compare and for you to administer." You may, for example, consider offering one co-pay plan and one that has a small deductible.

These strategies can help improve employee satisfaction and provide an important opportunity to educate workers about the value of the benefits you offer them. A well-managed process also reduces stress on your HR team and helps ensure that you meet your vendors' deadlines.

Here are some other ways to strategically manage the open enrollment period for benefits and improve the experience for employees.

Start open enrollment communication early

If you're like many employers, you may currently have a majority of your staff working remotely. Since you may need to offer virtual benefits sessions and communicate with employees in non-traditional ways, it's important to allow for unexpected delays and start communicating early.

If your staff is concentrating on more pressing topics or job tasks resulting from COVID-19, they may need more communication than normal to remind them to take appropriate action regarding their benefits. They may become frustrated if these requirements spring up abruptly, so share information as soon as possible. Remember: It's never too early to start the informational process concerning employee benefits open enrollment.

To make this possible, contact vendors to determine when new information will become available and how that information can be relayed to your employees. Also, conduct company-wide surveys well ahead of enrollment season to gauge the level of employee satisfaction with current plan options and to seek input on what they'd like to see changed in the year ahead.

You can also take steps during orientation for new employees to help streamline the process. As part of onboarding, says Lynette Latrell Davis, Paychex senior HR generalist, "set aside time for new hires to review the employee handbook and educate them on how to access relevant information online. This can accelerate the enrollment process and get new employees quickly up to speed on their benefits options."

Allow as much lead time as possible

Benefits enrollment is often not a solo activity. Your employees may need to coordinate with spouses or partners, and run multiple calculations to determine which plans and optional coverages are best to properly protect their families. With the influence of the pandemic, families are juggling many more challenges and considerations than they have in previous years, so it may take even longer to sort through the details.

Employees may also be used to completing paper benefits enrollment forms from a central office location. Employees who may be registering remotely for the first time may have more questions than usual or need extra support. To account for these delays, allow for additional lead time to help ensure that all your employees can still get registered on time.

To show employees that you understand their predicament and to encourage maximum participation, provide as much lead time as possible between sharing the initial benefits information and your specified deadline for enrollment. This will give your employees time to:

  • Review information
  • Ask questions
  • Coordinate with relevant family members
  • Think about their benefits enrollment
  • Evaluate any change in benefits need as a result of COVID-19

Additionally, consider sending regular reminders to employees during that interval to keep the upcoming deadline on the radar.

Send out information on the benefits enrollment period through multiple channels

One of the most common reasons for a lack of participation in employee benefits programs is a lack of information. Employees may not understand the full range of benefits available to them, or they may not feel as if they have enough information to make smart decisions. These issues can be further complicated when employees are working remotely, especially if this is a relatively new or temporary work situation.

To empower your employees to make informed decisions, strive to offer information about benefits and plan changes in different formats and through multiple channels. The better the open enrollment communication, the smoother the enrollment experience can be. Remember that remote employees may also be working with different home office setups. For example, not all employees may have access to a printer at home, so providing enrollment information in printed format may be helpful.

Consider making benefits information available to employees through:

  • An employee benefits website
  • Enrollment emails
  • Enrollment newsletters
  • Home mailings
  • Webinar presentations

Sharing information in different formats also helps explain key details to employees who learn in different ways. For example, some vendors now provide comprehensive plan overview videos or benefits comparison charts that make it easier for employees to digest a large amount of detailed information.

Keep in mind that applicable businesses must adhere to Affordable Care Act regulations covering the distribution of electronic summaries of benefits and coverage, their availability, and when these and related materials must be provided.

Offer a self-service option

Many workers prefer a self-service option for employee benefits enrollment. Self-service makes it possible to enroll in benefits programs without undue stress. The functionality also enables employees whose benefits enrollment is straightforward or involves minimal or routine changes to quickly make those adjustments online. It can save both your employees and your HR team valuable time during busy work periods.

Self-service enrollment may also be the only way to get all of your team enrolled if a majority of your workforce is remote. Self-service options give your employees the freedom to enroll at the time that is most convenient for them without needing to contact you directly or use mail-in forms that could get lost in the shuffle.

Provide HR support for all open enrollment options

While many employees want the flexibility of self-service, it's also important for employees with questions to have available HR support. Employees are more likely to embrace self-service when they know they have access to a team of knowledgeable professionals who can answer questions. The following strategies can help companies achieve this balance:

  • If you have employees onsite, Invite insurance carriers to make in-person presentations where employees can ask questions directly.
  • Offer virtual drop-in Q&A sessions, either from insurance carriers or your HR team, to address questions from remote workers and review plan variations.
  • Provide email addresses, phone numbers, and websites where employees can find answers to individual questions.

Hand out printed materials and other resources

For many companies, open enrollment packets are distributed to all employees during the normal workday or through inner-office mail delivery. If you have remote workers, you'll need to deliver resources via postal mail or email. For the former, allocate time for employees to receive the information, and create a follow-up process to make sure each employee received a packet. For the latter, you can get the information in your employees' hands faster and save on shipping costs, but some insurance carriers may not have the information in digital form. As such, you may need to create some benefits documents that are specific to your company and your benefits offerings. Producing easy-to-read printed pieces can be a very helpful way to improve open enrollment communication, particularly if you offer information that shows side-by-side comparisons of:

  • Premiums, projected employee contributions, and/or deductibles
  • Lists of in-network and out-of-network medical facilities and consulting physicians
  • Changes in plan offerings from the past year and the one coming up

Try to anticipate the kinds of questions employees will ask, and include a detailed frequently asked questions document with any digital information you share (a PDF version on your company's intranet can help too).

Special enrollment periods (SEPs)

In addition to the standard special enrollment periods available for many qualifying life events, several states have enacted special enrollment periods related to COVID-19. If you have employees who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, you can show your support by sharing information and deadlines with those who qualify.

If your employees are located in a state without a pandemic-specific SEP (or the SEP has already expired for that state), employees may still qualify under the standard SEP provisions. Even if an SEP isn't an option, many individuals can purchase a "short-term health insurance plan" to provide at least some coverage. Make sure your employees are educated on the options available to them, as this can minimize stress during an already uncertain time.

Additional open enrollment information for 2021

If you're looking for a more streamlined way to manage your benefits offerings, help is available. You can streamline the enrollment process with Paychex employee benefit services. By using the help of trusted and licensed insurance agents, you can get the resources you need to empower your employees throughout the enrollment process.

Insurance is sold and serviced by Paychex Insurance Agency, Inc., 150 Sawgrass Drive, Rochester NY 14620. CA License #0C28207.

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