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Jennifer Benz April 10, 2013 4 min read

Mad Men take on health insurance: What the upcoming state exchanges mean for your benefits communication

Have you noticed an uptick in stories on health care? The ugly U.S.-pays-way-more-than-any-other-country-for-health-care graphs we used to see only in board rooms are making it into the newspapers. And the health-care-is-still-broken stories and the don’t-get-left-behind Obamacare-101 pieces keep coming.

The surge of information in the mass media is only just beginning. The state exchanges are scheduled to open October 1 of this year. That means your employees (and the rest of America) will start hearing more and more about them—especially over the summer. The federal government, as well as the states, will be behind massive education campaigns aimed at getting people on their exchanges. Their target: anyone eligible for a subsidy. That could be quite a chunk of your employees—or their family members.

And the advertisers are just getting started, too. Insurers, now realizing the need to become expert consumer marketers, will compete for customers using every channel available. Their target: everyone, especially the young and healthy.

Expect an onslaught of ads through all the typical channels: TV, radio, print, and web online news. There’s no reason these ads won’t be as creative as Geico or AFLAC. With social media, ads can be especially personal and targeted. Just think of seeing this on Facebook: "Liz, we can get you a better deal than your employer's benefits!" Add sales booths in major retailers, and your employees might really start to feel like there’s nothing to do but shop for health insurance.

Think they won’t go after your employees just because you offer good employer benefits? Think your employees won’t be tempted by the marketing promises? Think again.

We’ve been clamoring for employees to pay attention to their coverage, to really compare their options and choose the plan that works for them. Will the combination of media attention and Madison Avenue glitz finally get your employees to appreciate the benefits you offer and take the time to evaluate what’s best for them? Or will it just confuse the issue, become a headache for your whole team and leave you answering endless questions?

Yes, of course, we think the answer to that lies in how you communicate with your employees!

Be ready: get your communications plan in place now.

The questions don’t have to overwhelm your team. And, just like we’ve said before, you can use this momentum and attention to reinforce your benefits strategy and overall goals. But you really do have to get a plan in place now. Here’s how:

  1. Make sure you have the communications infrastructure you need. That means a benefits website and a plan for year-round communication. A benefits website—outside your firewall—has long been our top recommendation for companies of all sizes. And if you don’t have one, the time to get one is now. A blog feature allows you to respond to timely media stories—and use the news to your advantage. Of course, employees and family members will call or drop by, so make sure you’ve primed your frontline resources for questions this summer and fall. And make sure you have the plan and resources in place to communicate throughout the year.
  2. Decide on your POV. You need to think about the big questions, even if you don’t have all the answers. What is the plan for your health insurance offerings? Are you in a wait-and-see mode, tweaking plans like normal? Are you strongly considering a new approach like a private exchange? With that in mind, would you like employees to shop for coverage or do you prefer to keep them on your plans? Do you feel the same way about dependents? Get your arms around your point of view and articulate that clearly to your employees. No, you don’t have to have all the answers. But you do need to educate them about what’s happening overall and what impacts them now. And be prepared to answer the tough questions, like “Are you going to drop coverage?” Employees will be thinking it, even if they are not asking.
  3. Plan for communication this summer and fall. Get out in front of the message this summer—and again this fall. Combine these new messages with the likely scenario that you are putting more of a focus on CDHPs and raising the stakes on wellness, and you are probably not looking at a business-as-usual enrollment. We have lots of tips for making enrollment a success, and this year, a successful enrollment will be more important than ever.

For more thoughts on the expected flood of marketing materials from exchanges and insurance providers, check out this Workforce article that we were recently quoted in.

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.