Open enrollment for health and other benefit plans is one of the most hectic periods for HR departments. You can’t completely avoid stress, but you can take actions that will help the process go much more smoothly. For calendar year renewals, if you haven’t already, start now! Here are some important steps to reduce your headaches:

1. Engage brokers and providers. Work with your providers. They should help you evaluate alternatives as well as provide informational materials for your employees. Enlist their expertise to help educate employees and, if need be, upper management.

2. Get approvals. Obtain upper management approvals as soon as possible regarding the plans that will be offered and the amount of employer vs. employee contributions. Until you have those approvals it’s difficult to plan properly so make this happen as soon as possible.  Be prepared to make recommendations and provide alternative scenarios and cost comparisons.

3. Forge a plan. Lay out actions to be taken for each benefit plan. Incorporate deadlines and new requirements into your planning and education efforts. This year there are Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirements to provide a Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) to eligible employees at least 30 days prior to the plan renewal date following September 23, 2012 and to reduce the contribution limit to health flexible spending accounts (FSA) to $2,500 in 2013.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Consider various methods to best reach all eligible employees. Email might be fine for office staff but it doesn’t work for employees who don’t use computers. Use a variety of methods to grab attention: email, intranet, posters, payroll stuffers, newsletters, home mailings. Communications should be clear and concise and highlight key information such as meeting dates, forms to use, and deadlines. Try, too, to drive home the point that this information is important to their well-being.

5. Educate, educate, educate. Benefits plans have become ever more complex in recent years and it’s important that employees truly understand the ins-and-outs of how plans work. If you have a high deductible health plan (HDHP) with commensurate health savings accounts (HSA) or health reimbursement arrangements (HRA,) it’s crucial that employees understand the complexities of how to use them legally and properly. Educational meetings should be held at different times to accommodate varying schedules.

Also, do consider hosting evening meetings for spouses as sometimes they are the ones making the benefits decisions. Make sure employees and their families understand such important facets of their health insurance plans as: deductibles, co-pays, coinsurance, preventative care coverage, required pre-approvals and referrals, cost differentials between in-network and out-of-network providers, and different tiers of prescription drug coverage. Their understanding will save you headaches later on! After all, when the insurance company does not cover a cost in the way the employee expected, to whom does (s)he complain?

6. Coordinate with Payroll. Make sure you know when enrollment and other benefits information needs to be provided to your payroll department and that your deadlines and planning reflect that timing. Ensure that 2013 IRS contribution limits are incorporated into the payroll system so the amounts are not exceeded. (To view these limits, click retirement plan limits and health plan limits.) Employees are disappointed when money they thought was deducted pre-tax needs to be taxed. That’s one headache you can prevent!

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