UpFront | Published in September 2016

Open ­Enrollment Not Just About
Health Benefits

It’s an opportunity to discuss wider changes including retirement planning or other benefits

By John Manganaro | September 2016
Open enrollment period is generally considered the month or so for managing employer-sponsored health benefits. But experts reviewing the objectives for these time frames suggest that they can also be a window through which to address the retirement package.

Mike Sinkeldam, a principal and compliance consultant at Mercer in Irvine, California, suggests that open enrollment is “probably the best opportunity out of the whole year for an employer to get employees to pay attention to their benefits, and not just the health benefits.”

“Plan sponsors will already know that open enrollment is their main [chance to inform] employees of changes to their health benefits,” he says, “but it should not be viewed as an effort that is exclusively concerned with health benefits. It’s a great opportunity to expand the conversation and to discuss wider changes, say to the retirement offering or any other benefits.”

Employees are used to the ritual of annual open health plan enrollment, he observes, so it only makes sense to “partially highjack the process” to bring attention to other benefits the employer may offer. Sinkeldam notes that some plan sponsors worry about widening the conversation to go beyond health benefits “out of some type of regulatory concern.” But this concern is generally unnecessary.

“Open enrollment is actually a very flexible requirement, and, in fact, in a strict sense, [it] is not actually a legally defined requirement,” he explains. “The relevant regulations actually require you simply to give people enrolled in health care coverage at least one opportunity to make changes each plan year. More often it is collective bargaining or other employment agreements that might actually dictate specifically when open enrollment comes up or what it will have to look like, rather than the benefits law.”

Muriel Knapp, defined contribution (DC) advisers specialty practice leader at Mercer in Washington, D.C., agrees with that assessment, urging plan sponsors to think about the time frame as one equally for collecting and distributing information.

“We are especially optimistic about the idea of utilizing open enrollment as an opportunity to speak to employees holistically about their benefits and to assess their general financial wellness,” Knapp says. “Open enrollment, in fact, is clearly one of the best times to roll out a new financial wellness program you have been putting together.”

The objective of open enrollment, in this sense, can be widened “to show people not just how to use the health and/or retirement benefits but also how to optimize the benefits for their own personal circumstances,” Knapp says. “[It] is a great opportunity to collect and filter data, which allows you to get a lot more targeted in your follow-up communication throughout the year.”

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