In a world of Smartphones, Amazon and Netflix, are benefit counselors destined to share the fate of pinsetters and elevator operators? Or is there an important place for human interaction in the era of employee self-service and advanced decision support tools?
We recently completed annual open enrollment with a long-term client who had made the decision to move to employee self-service using our advanced decision support platform. After enrollment, the senior HR leader reflected on the experience and opined that he probably transitioned away from benefit counselors too quickly and, in retrospect, wished he had continued with them one more year.
The Case for One-to-One Benefits Counseling
In the journey towards self-service, why might you use counselors as you transition your benefits delivery strategy? There are three elements that seem to suggest the need for counselors:
- benefits illiteracy
- infrequency (and, therefore, unfamiliarity) of enrollment
- narrow network (less frequent, but may become more prevalent thanks to the ACA)
The first area in which counselors prove useful is in overcoming an employee’s tendency to shy away from engagement in benefits. Benefits are technical. To understand the basics you need to learn a completely new vocabulary, which is easier said than done. As a recent Cigna commercial demonstrates, the majority of Americans are benefits illiterate. As a result of this illiteracy, they tend to throw up their hands and resist engaging in self-service platforms, regardless of the number of videos, storyboards, and “easy-to-use” tools.
While most employee populations are made up of literate individuals, it seems that written materials, as well as their online companions, do little to foster true benefit understanding and appreciation. As my father used to say, “Those who don’t read are no better than those who can’t!” My gauge for the complexity of a benefits program is the proverbial benefit guide. Even if you did read it (which most won’t), would a non-benefits professional understand it? Does it clearly articulate what the employer is trying to accomplish with the benefits program, or is the message more subtle?
1:1 Sessions Provide Better Benefits Understanding
After gathering 10 years’ worth of feedback from employees that participated in a one-on-one counseling session, we found that:
- 96% report better understanding their benefits
- 47% say that benefits counseling significantly improved their understanding
Infrequency of Enrollment
The second reason you might consider using a benefits counselor is that benefits enrollment is something that is done only once a year for most employees. Unlike Amazon, Netflix, or their online banking platform, employees don’t use the technology enough to get comfortable with it. Recent advances in technology and design have simplified the user experience, but the balance between making the experience simple and still providing access to the vast array of technical details challenges efforts to make this “single transaction platform” truly simple. One-on-one benefits counseling can reduce or eliminate the stress employees face when attempting to use self-service enrollment software.
The final argument for the use of one-to-one benefits counseling is that at least one of the medical choices involved a “narrow network” of doctors. Because “network adequacy” was excluded from the ACA, offering plan choices with narrow networks continue to be an important weapon in the fight against healthcare inflation. The challenge comes when advanced decision support tools try to deal with recommendations around such plans. These plans will be the least expensive option for the coverage they provide and, as a result, will be attractive for many price-sensitive buyers (because who isn’t price sensitive when it comes to employee benefits?).
How do “narrow network” plans differ from other plans?
Benefits professionals may be concerned that too many employees will choose these plans and then be disappointed later. However, even the definition of a “narrow network” plan can be misleading. The plan may only be “narrow” if your chosen provider is not in it. Otherwise, there is no difference between this plan and the more expensive “open access” plan. Counselors can be an important addition to ensure that people don’t enroll in these “narrow network” plans without understanding the potential limitations.
Don’t Miss the Harbor
Employees’ level of engagement (aka benefit literacy or illiteracy), the introduction of new technologies, and use of narrow network plan options—if your employee population and benefits strategy includes one or more of these components, you may want to consider utilizing a benefits counselor to aid in benefit delivery. One of my father’s favorite adages is, “When the ship misses the harbor, rarely is it the harbor’s fault.” In this hyper-competitive labor market, and given the significant investment employers are making in employee benefits, this is one ship that just can’t afford to miss.