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Open Enrollment Guide & Strategies To Improve the 2023 Benefits Process

  • Employee Benefits
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 09/30/2022
women reviewing employee benefits

Table of Contents

The benefits 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 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.

Why Open Enrollment Is Important

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.

When Is Open Enrollment for 2023, 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, 2022 through Jan. 15, 2023. Employers may set an 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 have all the necessary paperwork completed before the federal deadlines.

Some 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.

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 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.

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 have certain responsibilities to distribute annual notices related to open enrollment communication to employees. For example, employers are required to provide employees with certain disclosures and annual notices that inform 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 that is currently providing health insurance. SEPs vary based on the type of qualifying event, but most periods last for the 30- to 60-day period after the life event occurs.

How To Refine and Improve Your Company’s Current Benefit Enrollment Process

With the federal open enrollment period coming up, 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 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.

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 your open enrollment period for benefits and improve the experience for employees.

Have an Open Enrollment Communication Plan and Start Communication Early

When developing or fine-tuning your open enrollment communication plan, consider how information can most easily reach your employees. If you're like many employers, you may have a majority of your staff working remotely or in a hybrid work setup. 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. 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.

Take new hires into account as well when crafting an effective communication plan for benefits. This can start during orientation for new employees to help streamline the process. As part of onboarding, says Lynette Latrell Davis, Paychex Client HR Business Partner III, "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 needed 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.

To empower your employees to make informed decisions, 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. 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/agents 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 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 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 or link 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 for 2023

If you're looking for a more streamlined way to manage your benefits offerings, help is available. You can streamline the 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 2023 open enrollment process.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.