Benefits, HR News & Trends

What to Tell Employees About Health Care Reform: Where You Should Start

Illustration by istockphoto.com

First of three parts 

It has been more than three years since we first told you what to tell employees about health care reform.

We’ve gone on a roller-coaster ride since then, but the Affordable Care Act is moving full-steam ahead and 2014 is a big year for benefits. We’ve said from the beginning that we can use this as a strategic opportunity to get employees and their families engaged. This is your year to do just that!

Here’s our guidance on what you should say, how to say it, and when. And grab a cup of coffee, because we all have a lot to do!

So first, why communicate?

Well, for one thing, you have to (but we’ll talk more about that later.) Another important reason to communicate now is that the current media attention and upcoming onslaught of consumer advertising dedicated to the Affordable Care Act mean health care is in the national dialogue like never before. But, if anything, that is making people more confused, not less.

We’ve been conducting focus groups with employers from Utah to New Hampshire and one theme is clear: People don’t get it. “It” being their health care benefits, health care costs or health care reform.

It doesn’t matter if we speak with highly paid PhDs or individuals working two minimum-wage jobs. Everyone has similar questions, misunderstanding and sense of being overwhelmed about health care.

But don’t just take our word for it. There’s plenty of current poll data that reveal the exact same thing. For example, according to the Aflac Workforces report, 74 percent say when thinking about their benefits choices, they sometimes, rarely or never understand everything that’s covered by their policy options—particularly when it comes to health coverage.

123RF Stock Photo

123RF Stock Photo

Just as troubling are stats from a recent Kaiser Tracking Poll that show 42 percent of Americans are unaware that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is still the law of the land, including 12 percent who believe the law has been repealed by Congress, 7 percent who believe it has been overturned by the Supreme Court, and 23 percent who don’t know whether or not the ACA remains law.

About half the public says they do not have enough information about the health reform law to understand how it will impact their own family.

When it comes to where they are getting information about the law, Americans most commonly cite friends and family, “newspapers, radio news or other online news sources,” and cable news. Only one in 10 say their employer.

How to communicate health care reform right

This confusion is at a minimum going to create more work for your HR group. Plus, it can negatively affect how employees perceive your benefits and result in them making poor benefits decisions.

Employees already make mistakes with their benefits — mistakes that cost money. Aflac finds that 76 percent of employees who make decisions about their benefits coverage say they’ve made mistakes selecting benefits options; 42 percent say they’ve lost money because of those mistakes.

So, help your employees — and yourself! — and communicate the right way.

Here are your rules of thumb:

  • Focus on what matters now. Don’t overwhelm employees with what happens four years from now, or random “What if?” scenarios. Only focus on what matters now. Trust us, you’ll have plenty to talk about! See our long list over the next two articles.
  • Plan for ongoing communication. Don’t pile it all on at once. And don’t think that one time is going to fix everything. Use ongoing channels and make sure you’re giving people many ways to interact with the information.
  • Do the work to make this simple for your employees. And make no mistake, it is work. This stuff is complicated, confusing and full of nuance. You need to be the source of clear, simple, unbiased information.
  • Use social media, videos, tools, examples and real stories to make this come to life. Health care topics will always be emotional. A less formal tone and some interactivity work to bring your employees closer to your message. Your blog is perfect for a series of posts on health care and health care reform. Want a bit more oomph? We are doing some gorgeous custom videos and creating a stylish interactive modeler. And, our friends at Jellyvision have this cool tool.

Tomorrow: Must-do’s for this summer.

Common sense caveat that keeps our lawyers happy: This article is from Benz Communications, an employee benefits communication consulting firm. We know benefits. We know what your employees care about. We know how to help you bridge the two. We are not attorneys, and nothing in this constitutes legal advice or anything coming close to it. In addition, as we all know, the legislation and regulations are in flux. This information is accurate at the time it was published, but you should consult the HHS website or other sources for the most up-to-date information at the time you communicate to employees.

Jennifer Benz is Chief Strategist and Founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based consultancy that focuses on custom, comprehensive benefits and HR communications services. Jen is an active member of the Council for Communication Management, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Northern California Human Resources Association and Women in Consulting. Contact her at jen@benzcommunications.com.