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Jennifer Benz February 1, 2017 6 min read

Changes to Obamacare: How to communicate current health care reform efforts to employees

When we first offered advice around what to tell employees about health care reform, it was in 2010, right after the Affordable Care Act was passed. Since then, we’ve all experienced the ups and downs of implementing the ACA, and now it looks like we are going to see that law dismantled over the coming months. President Trump has already issued an executive order, and Congress has pledged to repeal the law, even without a replacement. Several proposals are currently being floated, but none have gained traction.

At this point, all eyes are on health care—Americans want lower costs. In a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of the public (67%) said that reducing the amount individuals pay for health care should be a “top priority” for President Trump and Congress. While we as benefits experts are trying to make sense of the anticipated changes, employees are seeing and hearing the news as major media, NPR, and others dig into how large employers may be impacted by the overhaul of Obamacare.

HCR tangled mess

If you haven’t already started to get questions from employees about how these impending changes will affect their health benefits, you should be prepared for the coming onslaught. Even if you don’t have all the answers, communicating more during times of uncertainty builds trust.

Don’t have all the answers? Take it a day at a time.

So, what do you say now, especially when so much is still up in the air?

Our article in 2013 outlined key topics to address with employees, and the issue of health exchanges was among them. It is a helpful reference for some of the big pieces you’ve already taken employees through. Our rules of thumb still apply for communicating in the current environment:

  • Focus on what matters now. Don’t overwhelm employees with what could happen, or unknown “what if?” scenarios.
  • Plan for ongoing communication. More frequent updates will keep employees feeling informed, and help them use the benefits that are available to them. Use your ongoing channels, and make sure you’re giving people ways to ask questions.
  • Do the work to simplify what your employees are hearing. This stuff is complicated, confusing, and full of nuance. You need to be the source of clear, simple, unbiased information that employees can have confidence in. Make sure that you take the extra time to simplify information and break down complex ideas. To the extent you can help your employees become more health literate, they’ll be able to better understand upcoming changes—and how they might affect their benefits.
  • 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 can work to make your message more meaningful to your employees.

Go with what you know.

While we don’t know what will happen in Washington, we do know—and more importantly, you know—a lot about what health care means to your employees and your organization. This is the time to reinforce to employees that you have their best interests in mind, and have a solid strategy in place. The questions they’re likely to ask will be about coverage and cost. “Will our plans stay or will they change?”  “Will costs continue to go up?”

Here are several messages to consider relaying to employees:

  • Your health and health coverage is important to us. Remind employees why you offer health care benefits and the commitment you’re making to help them have healthier, more financially secure futures. Consider getting your leaders involved to emphasize the importance of keeping employees healthy and safe. 
  • We are closely watching what’s happening, and we will keep you informed as soon as we know if and how changes will impact us. Help them feel confident in your process and the expert team you have. You can speak to the benefits committee or teams of outside experts you work with to ensure you’re doing the best for employees.
  • ACA isn’t the only thing changing the health care system. ACA has always been just one piece of the massive change happening throughout the health care system. Aside from the uncertainty about ACA, we still have a lot of work to do to get individuals better engaged in their health and using the benefits available to them.
  • More change is inevitable, and costs will continue to be a challenge. Like many things, when it comes to health care, the only constant is change. It’s important to remind employees that your benefits strategy—the plans you offer and even the premiums—are greatly influenced by ACA as well as many other factors changing the health care system. Therefore, as you do every year, you will assess your plans and premiums to ensure you’re providing comprehensive coverage options that meet the needs of your employees, the business, and legislative requirements. Also talk about the ways you are working to manage costs and what may be ahead. If you’re exploring new plan designs, centers of excellence, or new tools and resources, now may be a time to preview what’s ahead.  
  • You can do your part by using our benefits and taking steps to improve your health. As we said originally about ACA, reminding employees about what is within their control is really helpful. And, you have a lot of programs and tools that can help—with wellness goals, health management, and costs. Be sure to emphasize your programs that help employees get the care they need and feel less intimidated by the system, such as advocacy and concierge programs. As the National Business Group on Health said in its recent blog, Six things to watch in 2017, “As much as we would like employees to become sophisticated consumers of health care, the delivery system is too complex and employees do not engage with enough frequency to ever become sophisticated consumers.” 
  • We’ll provide regular, ongoing updates. If possible, commit to a timeline for future updates (e.g., quarterly as things change), and set expectations around the vehicles you’ll use to deliver those messages (emails, your website, print, social media).
  • If you have questions, here’s where to direct them. Be sure all your communications offer contact information for HR, your call center, or wherever you decide to field employee questions.

If you’re in the health care industry, you may need to provide additional information—typically from your leadership—about how they anticipate the repeal of the ACA will affect your company. This communication could take the form of a message from your CEO, talking points, or FAQs.

One last piece of advice: Be mindful of how you positioned ACA, and be consistent with that. Did you bring neutral positioning or did you have a strong point of view in your prior communications? If you pointed only to ACA as the reason for big changes to your strategy, such as moving to high-deductible plans, you’ll need to reposition those changes in the context of the overall health care system.

As hard as it seems to be talking about a subject that’s in flux, what’s crucial to remember is that keeping the lines of communication open—especially at a time like this—is key.

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 blog post constitutes legal advice or anything that comes 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 for the most up-to-date information at the time you communicate to employees, we recommend that you consult the HHS website or other sources.

Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.