You already read that Voluntary Benefits Are No Longer Voluntary for Employers. Now it’s time to dig deeper into Voluntary Benefits best practices- program design, what constitutes success when it comes to voluntary benefits and outline tips to prevent an ineffective voluntary program.

The term voluntary benefits was coined long ago when employers fully funded (or significantly subsidized) core benefits and voluntary benefits were an add-on, paid for by the employee through payroll deductions.  As the landscape changed, core benefits evolved to be partially funded by employers and partially funded through payroll deductions. As a result, many benefits became voluntary.

For today’s employees, it’s not as simple as core and voluntary; it’s about choice.  Employees need to balance what limited disposable income they have for all benefits, regardless of what they are labeled. Even still, the concept of core and voluntary resonates with employers as an industry norm, so it’s important to identify ways to avoid common pitfalls of voluntary program implementation:

  1. Think holistically
  2. Don’t forget about ERISA
  3. Consider enrollment options as a critical component in overall design
  4. Remember that education is key
  5. Help employees get the most from their plan

Think Holistically About Voluntary BenefitsVoluntary Benefits Tips

Many employers think offering voluntary benefits is like checking a box – something that can be done quickly and without much deliberation. However, programs without thoughtful preparation are rarely successful in terms of education, enrollment and satisfaction.  Voluntary benefits should be considered an integral part of the overall benefits package.  A strong offering should take into account various factors, including but not limited to:

Current population:

Although a one-size-fits-all approach does not and should not exist, employee demographics can help you pinpoint which products would be most sensible for your collective audience.  Generally speaking,                  those that are starting out in their careers have different priorities than those nearing retirement, and employees falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum will have their own set of benefits needs as                well.  For example, accident insurance is more popular for families than for singles or empty nesters, while student loan repayment is more relevant for those in their 20’s and 30’s than for older employees.

Current benefit offering:

When considered in tandem, voluntary benefits can serve to protect employees and reduce their risk or perceived risk for various physical or financial troubles.  For example, introducing a high deductible                   health plan offering complementary voluntary products (i.e. hospital indemnity, critical illness, accident insurance) can help decrease the financial burden on employees.

Don’t Forget About ERISA Considerations for Voluntary Benefits

Voluntary Benefits Best PracticesVoluntary benefit programs may or may not be subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), depending on how they are structured and supported by the employer.  ERISA provides important protections but can also pose constraints for employers and employees.  Assuming you do not want your voluntary programs to be covered under ERISA, you must be careful to manage enrollment and administration separately from your core benefit programs.  If you would like your voluntary plans to be subject to ERISA, then coordinating administration and enrollment will not be problematic; however, understand the potential impacts.  ERISA compliance and your potential fiduciary duties should never be an afterthought.

Consider Enrollment Options as a Critical Component in Overall Design

Our research affirms that employees better understand the offering and have higher enrollment when they participate in group meetings or individual meetings.  In addition, vendor partners are often willing to offer more competitive pricing and waive enrollment requirements if they can meet with employees directly or send them some type of material in the mail.

While some employers welcome the “free” education and enrollment, others are concerned about aggressive selling or having employees using work hours to meet with potential vendors.  If you think of voluntary benefits as part of your holistic offering, then leveraging work hours will be less of an apprehension when voluntary is an element of your complete attraction and retention tool.

The key is to think about the enrollment process as an essential design component of your voluntary program.  Ensure that decisions surrounding enrollment fit with the overall program strategy and make sense for your population.  Providing comprehensive enrollment with core and voluntary may be a best practice for your group.  This allows employees to make coordinated decisions regarding their contributions and programs.  It also enables you to offer complementary plans for optimal plan selection.  While that structure works for some, other employers feel employees have too many decisions to make during annual enrollment and prefer to stagger voluntary enrollment to allow more time for thoughtful decision making. There’s no right or wrong answer – each company and population is different.

Remember that Education is Important

Decision support tools have continued to evolve, providing employees with strong advocacy for traditional plans and voluntary benefits alike.  Although voluntary benefits are designed to be less complex and easier to understand, for some employees the language is new.  Summarizing the program(s) and sharing scenarios to help employees understand the products is often the best way to introduce a new plan.Voluntary Benefits Enrollment

Regardless of who funds the program, as the employer it is important that you educate your employees on the available offering.  Employees should not elect a benefit they do not understand and employers should not offer benefits that are not valued by employees, or that employers themselves cannot explain effectively.  Every dollar spent on voluntary benefits is money your employees are not spending on other necessities like monthly bills, student debt, groceries, emergency savings, or even 401k contributions; make sure they are knowledgeable about what they are buying and ensure that it’s a competitive product in the market.

Education can be facilitated in many ways including traditional employee meetings, brochures, benefit fairs, and onsite sessions with vendors.  At Spring we have also assisted clients with quick videos that provide the highlights of a program and generate interest.  These videos have been well received and employees are able to retain the information from a creative video more easily than a detailed presentation.  Videos are also shareable and can be viewed by family members who may be a critical part of the decision-making process.

Help Employees Make the Most of the Plan

Voluntary Benefits Vendors

After you have implemented a voluntary program and educated your membership it’s important that you continue to monitor the program and assist your employees in optimization.  Sometimes employees forget about the benefits they have available to them and continue to make monthly contributions to plans but they neglect to file claims because they don’t remember what they have elected.  A few simple actions can help your employees make the most of the plan:

  • Send a quarterly newsletter to all employees, or just those enrolled in voluntary benefits. This will give you the opportunity to remind them of the program benefits.  It can also help facilitate changes (i.e. enrolling spouses, children) and provide an opportunity to ask questions.
  • Partner with your vendors. For example, if you have a purchase program in place, they often run specials and send postcard reminders.  Take advantage of those specials!  Perhaps you could run a joint wellness campaign linked to specials on health equipment.  Ask if they would be willing to raffle off something like a treadmill or vacation to align with your wellness strategy.
  • Remind your employees to file claims. Even if you cannot leverage actual data, you can send a reminder at the midpoint of every year for wellness visits with a link to the claim form.  For example, most critical illness and accident plans offer a wellness rider – find out how many employees use that benefit and try to increase that percentage.
  • Ensure the program remains competitive from a pricing and design standpoint. Employees should feel assured that the benefit they’re purchasing through their employer remains is top tier.

Taking the above factors into account will help you establish a voluntary benefit offering that is accessible and relevant to your employees and that is well worth the effort on your part. Today’s workforce has come to expect more than just the basics when it comes to benefits, and voluntary products allow you to diversify your benefits package, keeping you competitive with market standards without any significant cost increase.

However, it is not enough merely to offer voluntary products and services – they need to be the right ones for your population, they need to be communicated effectively, they need to be readily understood, they need to account for regulations like ERISA, they need to be fully utilized and they need to be rolled out in a way that makes sense for your organization. By covering these bases you’ll be able to avoid the most common pitfalls and successfully offer a valued voluntary benefits programs.

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Teri Weber

Teri Weber

Partner at Spring Consulting Group, LLC
Teri Weber, ACI is a Partner with Spring Consulting Group. She has over 10 years of experience in health and welfare plan strategy, design, pricing, and implementation. She also works with absence management programs, including disability, family medical leave and leave of absence tracking. Her areas of expertise have allowed her to work with diverse employers and vendors to streamline processes and programs to meet the needs of insurers, administrators, employers and employees. Teri is on the Board for the New England Employee Benefits Council (NEEBC) and recently served as lead editor for the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s (DMEC) Return to Work Program Manual. Prior to joining Spring, Teri worked with Watson Wyatt, Buck Consultants and AON Consulting. In addition she was an Account Manager with Health Direct, Inc. Teri earned a BS at the University of Connecticut and a MBA at the University of Massachusetts. She holds an ACI designation and is a licensed broker in the states of MA and CT.