Tips and Strategies To Improve the 2024 Open Enrollment Benefits Process
- Employee Benefits
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 08/01/2023
Table of Contents
The benefit enrollment process can be complicated each year — both for your business and your employees. Not only can choosing the right benefits plans be confusing, but there can also be a lot of paperwork required. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to streamline the process and make it more likely for employees to participate. By increasing overall employee participation, you can reap the benefits — from decreasing per-person costs to attracting and retaining high-quality employees.
Read on to learn some open enrollment tips for employers to improve processes in 2024.
What Is Open Enrollment for Benefits?
During benefits open enrollment, eligible employees can enroll in benefits 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.
These benefit options typically include health coverage, dental, and life insurance, as well as additional voluntary benefits like legal services or pet insurance. In addition to these benefits, there are mandatory benefits a company must provide to its full-time employees, including Social Security and Medicare, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation insurance, and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protections.
Why Is Open Enrollment Important, and How Does It Work?
Once benefits elections are made, they often cannot be changed until the next year's enrollment period, unless specific qualifying life events occur. For this reason, it's important that your employees understand their options during open enrollment.
So, how does open enrollment work? During this time, employees can adjust their benefits to better suit their needs. They can choose new benefits, change their coverage levels, and select from a range of plan types. They can also adjust contributions to a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA). If they already have coverage, they can update it too by adding beneficiaries or increasing coverage amounts.
When Is Open Enrollment, and When Does It End?
For the majority of Americans, the federal health insurance marketplace open enrollment period for health insurance benefits starting in 2023 will run from Nov. 1, 2023, through Jan. 15, 2024. Most employers have an open enrollment period of at least two to four weeks. Employers may set up a benefits enrollment period for individual employees that begins and ends earlier than the federal health insurance Marketplace open enrollment period. This is often the case because employers want to complete all necessary paperwork before the federal deadlines.
Many states such as California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. have their own health insurance exchanges and may have extended 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. No matter where you're located, it's a good idea to check with your state to confirm important deadline dates.
Open Enrollment vs. Annual Enrollment
Do you know the difference between open and annual enrollment? Benefits open enrollment is a special enrollment period for making changes to health insurance plans, while annual enrollment is a broader opportunity to modify all benefits and healthcare plans annually. The annual enrollment period typically spans from November to mid-December, but the exact dates may vary depending on the employer. Changes made during annual enrollment usually take effect on January 1 of the following year.
Active vs. Passive Open Enrollment
Employers can use two approaches to manage employee benefits enrollment: active and passive enrollment. During active enrollment, employees must review and select their benefits during the enrollment period. Passive enrollment is more of a hands-off approach, where employees' existing benefits automatically roll over into the new plan year unless they choose to make changes.
How Long Is Open Enrollment?
There's no requirement as to how long open enrollment must be, but many companies choose to have an open enrollment period for employees that lasts between two and four weeks. Given that many benefits like health insurance will begin at the start of the new year, many businesses will choose to end open enrollment in November or December. This allows for a few weeks before enrollment forms must be submitted to benefit providers, with coverage beginning Jan. 1.
Is Open Enrollment the Same for All Companies?
The open enrollment period differs for every company. Each organization has its own unique approach and timeline for open enrollment.
Here’s a few of the key differences:
- Timing: While many organizations hold open enrollment around the same time of the year, the specific timing can vary depending on financial planning and renewal cycles.
- Duration: Some companies may opt for a shorter open enrollment window, while others may provide a longer period to allow employees more time to review their options and make decisions.
- Enrollment process: The process can also be different. Some companies may use online platforms or portals for employees to review and select their benefits, while others may require paper forms or direct communication with a benefits administrator.
How Long Do New Hires Have To Enroll in Benefits?
New-hire waiting periods for benefits coverage vary from business to business. Assuming the new hire has completed their benefits enrollment paperwork, health insurance can begin on their first day, while others may be eligible after a waiting period of up to 90 days before coverage starts (the Affordable Care Act provides that group health plans cannot have a waiting period of more than 90 days) after a participant satisfies the plan’s conditions for eligibility. Communicate any waiting periods to potential new hires when discussing compensation packages and negotiating benefits. You may even want to include this information in your employee handbook.
Are Employers Required To Notify Employees of Open Enrollment?
Employers are responsible for distributing annual notices related to open enrollment communication to employees. For example, employers must provide employees with certain disclosures and annual notices informing them of their rights and responsibilities regarding the company's health plan offerings, such as a Summary of Benefits Coverage and a HIPAA Notice of Privacy Practices. Keep in mind that you may need to provide notices within a designated timeframe. For instance, you may need to provide a notice at the time of enrollment, but you may also need to provide a disclosure at any point when a participant requests one.
What Is a Special Enrollment Period (SEP)?
If individuals miss the annual open enrollment period, they may be allowed to enroll in a health plan during a special enrollment period. SEPs 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 are defined as circumstances that would impact the household's need for medical care, such as the birth of a child or the loss of a job currently providing health insurance. SEPs vary based on the type of qualifying event, but most enrollment periods last for the 30- to 60-day period after the life event occurs.
Tips To Improve Your Company’s Current Benefit Open Enrollment Process
With the federal open enrollment period coming up, now is critical to review your open enrollment process and ensure you are adequately prepared to support employees.
As you review your benefits enrollment procedures, use this open enrollment guide to engage your employees further 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 need clarification or more information? Identifying gaps and opportunities for improvement year to year is the best way to upgrade your process continuously.
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 Client HR Business Partner II.
When you have a sense of what your employees want, Draper 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.
About 84% of employees say they’ll stay with an organization that supports their benefits needs, so it’s essential to make sure you’re offering benefits they need and value.1 These strategies can help improve employee satisfaction and provide an important opportunity to educate workers about the value of your benefits. A well-managed process also reduces stress on your HR team and helps you meet your vendors' deadlines.
Here are some open enrollment strategies to improve your process and employee experience.
Have an Open Enrollment Communication Strategy and Start Early
When developing or fine-tuning your open enrollment communication strategy, consider how information can most easily reach your employees. If you have staff working remotely or in a hybrid work setup, 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. 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 employee satisfaction with current plan options and seek input on what they'd like to see changed in the year ahead.
Allow As Much Lead Time As Possible
Benefits open enrollment is often a collaborative 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 protect their families properly.
Employees may also enroll in benefits using paper enrollment forms from a central office location. Employees 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 register 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 needs
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 lack of participation in employee benefits programs is a lack of information. Employees may need help understanding the full range of benefits available to them, or they may feel they need more information to make smart decisions.
To empower your employees to make informed decisions and improve your open enrollment process, strive to offer information about benefits and plan changes in different formats and through multiple channels. Better communication results in a smoother enrollment experience. Remember that remote employees may also be working with different home office setups and may need more information to enroll in benefits. For example, not all employees may have access to a printer at home, so providing a printed benefits enrollment guide 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 differently. 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.
Remember 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 make those adjustments online quickly. 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 your team enrolled if most of your workforce is remote. Self-service options give your employees the freedom to enroll at the most convenient time 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 on-site, invite insurance carriers/agents to make in-person presentations where employees can ask questions directly.
- Offer virtual drop-in Q&A sessions 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 internal-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 ensure each employee receives a packet. For the latter, you can get the news 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 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 deductibles
- Lists or links to/of in-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).
Consider Benefits Enrollment Software
Consider the role that technology can play in helping you conduct open enrollment. Benefits administration software is built not only to help you manage your offerings but also help employees make benefits choices with ease. Some key capabilities of employee benefits administration software include:
- Providing a centralized administrator dashboard
- Offering an employee benefits portal that allows staff to access benefits plans, update their information, and enroll
- Allowing administrators to create compensation statements
- Built-in compliance checking and reporting features
Additional Open Enrollment Information
If you're looking for a more streamlined way to manage your benefits offerings, help is available. You can streamline the benefits enrollment process with 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 open enrollment 2024 process.
12020 Employee Benefits Study, Paychex.