Starting Your Healthcare Reform Communications

HR could very easily meet its obligation by simply sending out a canned notice about employee- coverage options before Oct. 1 and be done with it, but taking the time to explain the changing benefits landscape will help employees make better choices and limit the amount of time you have to spend on follow-up questions.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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Let's talk about healthcare reform. Are you and your company ready to explain all the coming changes to employees and their families? Should you have to? Maybe not -- right now, you're really only on the hook for explaining employee coverage options -- but I think the pursuit's worthwhile.

For starters, employees will be looking to you for this very kind of thing. According to the 2013 Aflac Workforces Report, a good majority (75 percent) of the nation's employees are expecting their employers to help teach them about the ways their health care coverage will change as result of reforms.

Now you could very easily meet your obligation by sending out a canned notice about employee coverage options before Oct. 1 and be done with it, but taking the time to explain the changing benefits landscape will help employees make better choices and limit the amount of time you have to spend on follow-up questions.

Don't know where to start? Don't fret.

Communicate Early and Often

Don't lose sight of the fact that this health care reform information can be scary stuff, and a lot of people are in the dark. In fact, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's April 2013 Health Tracking Poll, "four in ten Americans are unaware that the ACA is still the law of the land and is being implemented."

If you're not careful, some of your employees might be hearing about health care reform for the first time when they get their notification of health care coverage options. 

Start with the Things That Affect People First

Although health care reform represents considerable changes, you can make the whole process so much easier when your initial communications focus on the things that will affect employees first.

Don't worry about exotic exceptions, what-if scenarios, or Affordable Care Act (ACA) fine print right off the bat. Concentrate on what will actually affect the greatest number of employees, and be sure to provide context for your explanations.

If Your Company Does Not Currently Offer Health Plans to Most Employees

OK, I've referenced the deadline for providing employees a notice of coverage options a few times so far, but let's take a moment to now to really dig into the requirement.

As you know, Technical Release No. 2013-02, issued from the U.S. Department of Labor last month, provides all the details about the upcoming Oct. 1 deadline for providing notification of coverage options. 

Basically, that means you have to let your employees know that that they have the option to buy health insurance coverage from public marketplaces starting in October of this year. In addition to having to explain how the marketplaces function, though, you'll have to cover things like premium tax credit eligibility and the fact that your company doesn't contribute to plans purchased on the marketplace.

If Your Company Does Offer Health Plans to Most Employees

You still have to notify employees about the marketplaces, but since your workforce will be more familiar with health insurance concepts, the task will be somewhat easier.

Fortunately, you only have to worry about the people who actually work for you -- you don't have to supply separate notification of coverage options for employee spouses or dependents.

Still, you should be prepared to discuss the marketplaces as well as the different ways current health care plan designs will be affected by the ACA.

If Any of Your Plan Details Might Change

If your company's health plan details might change because of cost considerations or other reasons, be sure to say so. Identify the plans by name, explain (in simple terms) what's happening, and provide a timeline for the change.

For example, if you expect that one or more of your current plans will trigger the 40 percent excise tax when it goes into effect in 2018, then you should use simple, jargon-free language to describe what that will mean for employees.

If your company plans to adjust the structure of its "Cadillac" plans to avoid the tax (and save employees money in the long run), then say so. Explain which plans will be affected, and let employees know what the plans for replacement are.

If You're Going to Keep Things (Mostly) the Same

OK, so you have plans to grandfather one or more of your plans. That's definitely a viable option, but if you intend to pursue it, you need to let employees know what enrolling in a grandfathered plan actually means.

For starters, the term "grandfathered" can be terribly misleading. It basically suggests that there's no change at all, and we all know that's not true. If you intend to offer these types of plans, you'll need to be extra-careful about what you say to employees.

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Because grandfathered plans won't be subject to all of the same ACA rules as every other plan after 2013, focus on the advantages (familiarity, cheaper premiums) and disadvantages (limited services) of choosing one.

And if You're Self-Insured

Since the ACA mandates that everybody have health insurance and guaranteed issue means that insurance companies will have to provide affordable coverage to everyone regardless of their previous conditions, the cost of being in the insurance business is going to increase. No surprise there, especially since group plans are looking at a $63 per covered member reinsurance fee.

Of course, employers with fully insured plans don't have much to worry about apart from potentially watching the costs of premiums go up, but employers who have self-insured plans will have to pay the reinsurance fee to the government directly. I mean, they can use a third-party administrator to do the deed, but still.

The point is, if your company is self-insured, you need to start thinking about how you'll be communicating the fate of your plans to employees.

Obviously, any increase in premiums requires an explanation. But if your company plans to (generously) cover the fees for its employees and their dependents -- remember, that fee is for every covered member -- then you should make sure employees know that, too.

Keep Everything Simple. And Short!

Affordable Care Act concepts and insurance-industry jargon are confusing, and if you don't stay laser-focused on creating simple, easy-to-understand messages, your efforts to communicate can backfire.

Avoid the temptation to explain everything at once. Instead of getting bogged down in details, present what you have to say in digestible bites.

Don't be afraid of the two-sentence paragraph. There's nothing wrong with a message that's short and to the point. In fact, there's everything right about that.

And if that means that you have to send multiple messages to cover all your bases, that's just fine.

It could take multiple "touches" before you engage an employee, and a short, direct message is the best way to keep their attention. Once you have it, though, you need to be sure that you don't let it go.

Justyn Harkin writes for The Jellyvision Lab, maker of ALEX Does Health Care Reform.

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