We've spent a lot of time in the USA recently. The US is on the cusp of the most stressful time of the year in group insurance - theopen enrollment period.
What is an open enrollment period? And why is it stressful?
What is open enrollment?
Group insurance is insurance bought by someone for the benefit of a group of people. It is usually purchased by the employer for their employees.
Group insurance plans usually run annually. The members of the plan (the employees) usually only have one chance each year to make changes to the coverage level they want. That chance to make changes is called the open enrollment period. It is also sometimes referred to as the annual renewal period.
In the USA, this time period is usually synchronized with the Open Enrollment period for the Health Insurance Marketplace that was created under the Affordable Care Act. In 2019, the Open Enrollment period is November 1, 2019 to December 15, 2019.
Why is it stressful?
Open enrollment is stressful because it condenses a year's worth of activity down into a six-week period, and because it impacts virtually every person in the country in some way. Decisions that are taken in this time period can affect the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.
Anytime you cram a lot of volume, complex choices and differing priorities into a mix, you've got a recipe for high stress. In group insurance, it affect different participants in different ways.
The person insured is asked to make big choices that they will need to live with for the next year.
The average person doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about their work-provided insurance plans, and suddenly a lot of information is thrown at them. They are asked to make some complex choices. They aren't an actuarial expert or a medical specialist, and have no desire to learn how to be one through the process of choosing their plan options each year. Yet that is what it feels like!
The person needs to decide on options, levels of deductible or co-pays, which things are covered or not, in a short period of time. If they get those choices wrong, the consequences can be major. For the average person, this is very stressful. They don't know who to reach out for advice they can trust - they don't even know the questions they should be asking.
For the employer, open enrollment time means administrative pain, financial and legal implications, and getting the balance right between offering your people enough to help retain them and keep them happy working for you, but not so much it is financially unmanageable for the business.
Open enrollment time for the employer usually means lots of visits from HR and benefit specialists. It also puts huge pressure on ensuring employee data is accurate, getting it into a format their providers need, and ensuring that the change and renewal process completes cleanly. It also puts a big onus on them as good employers to make sure that their people are aware of the opportunity, and make their choices in time.
For many businesses, the pre-Christmas holiday period is already their busiest time of year. So when you throw the additional distraction of all of your staff making big life choices into the mix, it adds up to extra distraction that you probably don't want or need. This stresses the employer, and especially stresses the HR team who get the thankless task of ensuring it all goes smoothly in the workplace.
For brokers providing the group insurance plans to the employers, open enrollment time is simultaneously the most stressful process time of the year, and the biggest sales opportunity of the year. During the six week window, a huge proportion of the US population is actually thinking about insurance coverage, probably for the only time that year. For brokers, this is like a rainstorm of opportunities, and trying to catch each raindrop in a bucket. Brokers need to make the most of this time window each year, while making sure that they service their employer customer really well in the process. For group insurance brokers, two things really threaten their group business - poor open enrollment processing, and poor support for employee claims processing.
So this is a high stress time for brokers. It creates their biggest pool of possible sales opportunities - but if they take their eye off the ball on getting the basics right and processing renewals smoothly and painlessly, they could put their group accounts at risk.
Group insurers encounter maximum stress during open enrollment. It is a six-week flurry of obtaining and checking updated customer information, getting the annual billing (and any associated adjustments) and commission payments sorted, making sure plan changes are in place, generating updated policy and coverage documentation out ..the list goes on and on. By the time January arrives, group insurance ops teams usually have a shell-shocked look, and are pledging to invest in process and technology improvements to reduce the pain for next year's enrollment processing.
How can open enrollment be less stressful?
At Sentro, we think it can be boiled down into one word - empathy.
Empathy for the most important person in the whole equation. The insured person.
The insured person has to make the important choices of benefit coverage for themselves and their family, but they aren't experts. Things should be made as clear and and as straightforward as possible for them.
The employer has a big role to play. Employers should be choosing their insurance and benefit providers not only on the basis of the price of the insurance. They should also be factoring in the cost of answering queries their people have about the benefits available. Do the insurer and the broker provide information that is clear and easy for the average person to understand? Do they provide that information in different ways, that suit the reading and researching styles of different people? Some people want to watch a video, others want to read technical information, some want a group seminar, some want to be able to ask questions face to face. Do their insurers and brokers provide good tools and resources for the employer and the employees?
The employer must also factor in the cost of providing and exchanging the required information with the insurer and the broker. Does the insurer make that task easy for the employer, or do they make that difficult?
The broker has a role to play. They need to bring the employer the trust and comfort that they are looking after the employer and employee's interests. They are serving two different customer needs (the employer's, and the employee's) so they must be very sensitive to balancing those needs well and professionally.
The insurer has a role to play. Have they designed and offered products that let an individual choose a coverage that comes closest to their needs? Have they given their brokers and business customers the technology to exchange information easily, securely, and flexibly? Have they provided product and servicing information in clear and straightforward way? Can they support different ways to communicate with the employee who has a question?
If everyone does a good job of putting the employee at the center of their thinking, stress levels can be lower for everyone at open enrollment time. At Sentro, we give insurers the tools to lower the stress level for everyone at enrollment time - Hub for the insurer, Connect for the broker and service provider, and Engage for the employer and the employee.