ATTN: Employees! Here are 5 Tips for Picking the Right Benefits During Open Enrollment

  • November 7, 2017
  • Blog

Yo! Are you one of the 150 million Americans who gets health benefits from your employer, and one of the much more than that who gets any kind of benefit from your employer? Then listen up! We’re in the middle of what thousands of benefits administrators know as “open enrollment season,” AKA “OE.” It’s like football season but both more intense and more boring. It’s the time of year when you and the majority of Americans who get health insurance through their employer will elect their health and other benefits for next year.

Want to make it as successful for you and your friendly neighborhood benefits administrator as you can? Here are five tips for getting the most out of OE.

1. Listen and Learn
Chances are, your benefits administrator has been getting you ready for OE for weeks, if not months. They’ve sent you emails, hung posters in the break room, and had open information sessions. And chances are that you — you lazy, ungrateful creature — have ignored them all. Heck, I’m “in the business” and I’ve ignored my share of OE emails, which has come back to bite me when it comes down to the wire.

Do yourself a favor and pay attention to those emails, posters and sessions, with a goal of answering these three questions for yourself prior to OE:

  1. What benefits are available to me in the coming year?
  2. What year-over-year changes have taken place in the coverage being offered to me by my employer?
  3. How much will it all cost?

This information is likely at least hinted at in the emails you’ve ignored or on the company benefits portal you haven’t logged into, so go to these sources before hitting up your overworked benefits/HR administrator (more on that below). Having answers to these questions will help set the foundation for you once OE starts and you’re asked to make decisions for the coming year.

2. Slow Your Roll
Your employer is spending anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 annually just for your benefits, above and beyond salary, bonuses, and more. Guess how much time the average American spends making a decision that impacts that spend? About 15 minutes, tops. It’s no surprise, then, that when employees are given a choice of multiple health plans from which to elect coverage, they forgo the plan most suited to their needs as much as 80% of the time. Yikes!

Your benefits administrator(s) can and should work very hard to help you make better decisions but ultimately it’s up to you to take your time and think about what you need. If you have the luxury of doing so, block off an hour on your calendar to thoroughly review and complete your enrollment. Maybe you can eat a sandwich at your desk one day and get through it at lunch. If you don’t have that luxury, do it after hours. You work a minimum of 2,000 hours per year. Spending 0.04% of that time making decisions worth thousands of dollars to both you personally and your employer is something worth prioritizing.

(Note to employers: The same reasoning goes for you. Don’t make your employees enroll in their benefits in their free time. Make it a company-wide priority to set aside time to help them get it right. You’ll save your benefits administrators a ton of work on the backend that will ultimately be good for your bottom line, and it will also give your employees confidence that the decisions they’re making are the right ones for them and their families.)

3. Do the Math
Since any monthly premium you pay for benefits most frequently comes straight out of your paycheck before you see any of it, it’s easy to lull yourself into believing that your benefits don’t cost you that much when in fact they could reduce your take-home pay by thousands of dollars. Plus, you spend money out-of-pocket whenever you go to the doctor, dentist, emergency room, etc. That’s why it’s important to consider your total annual expenses tied to various options presented to you.

Let’s pause for a moment and state the obvious: this step totally sucks.

Unless you’re an accountant or just more anal than the average air-breather, you’re not gonna have fun figuring out your healthcare expenses. Hopefully your company has a benefits enrollment platform with “decision support tools” (i.e. things like cost calculators that average out things like cost of services and tax benefits) that will help you do the math. If they do, make sure you’re looking at “total/estimated annual costs,” which should include both your annual premium costs and whatever you might spend “out of pocket.”

If your company doesn’t have a benefits enrollment platform and/or decision support tools, sharpen a couple of pencils and get a sheet of paper (or the electronic equivalent) and start crunching some numbers based on what you know of your healthcare expenses from the previous year. It’s gonna suck, but it’ll only suck for an hour or so — much less time annually than most people spend on their tax returns. Also, your benefits administrator knows a lot about costs and can probably guide you in the right direction, so now is the time to bug them. Just make it quick and don’t make them do your work for you.

4. Consider All Options
A common complaint I hear from benefits administrators is that employees don’t know all of the benefits that companies are offering them. Indeed, over the past decade, the total number of insurance/fringe benefits being offered by employers has risen substantially.

What does expanded benefits offerings mean for you? It’s possible that you don’t know everything your employer is giving you — because you’re not reading emails/posters/flyers from your friendly neighborhood benefits administrator. Refer to Steps 1-3 above and educate yourself on all that’s available to you. Then, once you know, think about which benefits apply specifically to you and which don’t. Concerned about paying off your student loans? A growing number of employers are making relevant benefits available to help. Don’t have identity theft protection? Your employer may offer something at a discounted rate from what you would pay on the open market. Signing up for a high-deductible health plan and concerned about your out-of-pocket costs should you have a medical emergency? See if your employer has gap/critical illness coverage.

Just as importantly, if you don’t need a benefit, don’t get it. It’s not uncommon for employees, especially higher-wage-earners in the Baby Boomer and Gen X-ers to just say yes to every benefit, “just in case.” But some of the benefits they elect may be overkill or actually overlap with other parts of their coverage, which means they’re over-insured and overpaying. So, again, take your time and consider all options but don’t necessarily choose all options.

5. Hug Your Benefits Administrator
Your company policy or your benefits administrator herself may not be on-board for getting a hug from every one of the employees she helps to find coverage, but they certainly wouldn’t mind a little thanks for a job well-done. Benefits administrators are under incredible stress — guiding millions of dollars in health and benefits expenses while trying to fit an entire year’s worth of decisions into a two-week window. There isn’t a ton of sleep or downtime happening for most of them this time of year. Be respectful of the effort they’ve put into getting benefits to you and making sure they continue to get to you throughout the year. Give ‘em a hug, send them an email compliment email or hand-written note, buy them flowers or lunch. Just let them know you appreciate the job they’re doing for you, year-in, year-out.