The first open enrollment period of the new era of employee health benefits is almost upon us and employers have a problem.

“People don’t get it. ‘It’ being their health care benefits, health care costs and health care reform,” says Jennifer Benz, founder of Benz Communications, an HR and benefits communication strategy firm. Benz, who has conducted a number of focus groups to gauge understanding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), notes that income and education level are not indicative of people’s understanding of the PPACA and the changes it will bring in 2014. “Everyone has similar questions, misunderstandings and a sense of being overwhelmed about health care,” she says.

If not addressed, this lack of understanding on the part of employees could have negative consequences for employers. Confused employees and dependents seeking help could inundate HR staffs that are already overwhelmed by the administrative changes associated with the PPACA’s requirements. “It can also negatively affect how employees perceive their benefits offerings and result in them making poor benefits decisions that cost them—and their employers—precious time and money,” says Benz.

To avoid those problems, Benz suggests employers focus on the following objectives with their health care reform-related communication.

 

Bring employees up to date.Companies that have not yet clearly communicated the changes that have already occurred under the PPACA need to get employees up to date on what has happened so far, such as the addition of coverage for dependents up to age 26. “Employers can and should be transparent with employees about the additional costs of the new requirements and how they’ve implemented new requirements so far,” says Benz.

 

Explain the 2014 changes coming up.The changes to the health care system and employee health benefits on January 1st will be significant. If they haven’t already done so, Benz notes that companies should be explaining the key provisions that will begin next year, including the fact that health insurance companies must accept everyone who applies for coverage regardless of health status, that everyone must purchase a certain level of health insurance coverage or pay a fine, and that individuals who cannot afford that coverage could be eligible for financial help in the form of subsidies and expanded Medicaid coverage in certain states.

“There are many new requirements that place more burden and costs on employers,” says Benz. “Overwhelming employees with details is not important; clearly explaining the impact to the company is. If real cost figures can be used, even better.”

 

Provide information about the state health insurance exchanges.Employers are required to communicate certain information to employees about the state health insurance exchanges starting October 1st. These exchanges are an important part of the changing health care system, making early communication about them and how they work a very good idea. The U.S. Department of Labor has released a sample form to guide this communication and a bulletin explaining the requirements.