Open Enrollment Not Just About Health Benefits

Mercer experts reviewed open enrollment objectives and recent developments in the health care provider market during a webcast Thursday—suggesting open enrollment can also be a time to address the retirement package.

Open enrollment periods are generally thought of as a time to manage employer-sponsored health benefits, but Mercer urges employers to also use the time to consider how to build a more holistic benefits package that promotes overall financial wellness.

Mike Sinkeldam, a principal and compliance consultant at Mercer,  kicked off the webcast by suggesting 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 opportunity for informing employees of changes to their health benefits,” he adds, “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 noted that some plan sponsors worry about widening the conversation during open enrollment to go beyond the health benefits “out of some type of regulatory concern.” But this concern is generally unnecessary.

“To this group I always point out that open enrollment is actually a very flexible requirement, and in fact, in a strict sense, open enrollment 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 Advisors specialty practice leader at Mercer, agreed with that assessment, urging plan sponsors to think about open enrollment equally as a time for collecting as well as 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 explains. “We have found that 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. “Open enrollment 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.”