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Communication helped sell changes to skeptical employees

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Kari A. Aikins knew a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy was essential to communicate sweeping changes to Western Kentucky University's health insurance program for the 2015 plan year.

Fortunately, Ms. Aikins said, two degrees in organizational communications — including a master's degree from the university — prepared her for the challenge.

“The idea was to shift our employees' mindset and let them know that we're all in this together and that if we all behave just a little bit differently in a few ways, we can have a very big impact,” said Ms. Aikins, the university's assistant director of human resources. “That starts with educating them on how self-insured health benefits actually work and helping them to understand that we, as a group, have a lot of control if we all work together.”

Beginning with a campuswide forum last July, Ms. Aikins and her staff set out on a multipronged employee education and training campaign in the switch from a traditional preferred provider organization health plan to a trio of account-based, high-deductible plans, with the university's contributions contingent on their taking part in wellness activities.

“Kari absolutely delivered on our need to clearly and effectively articulate what I think are very complex concepts and ideas and translate them into very simple yet descriptive terms and visuals that would enable our employees to capture the essence of what we're trying to accomplish,” said Tony Glisson, Western Kentucky's director of human resources.

“We started with what we called our "burden platform,' which we developed as a way of explaining to our employees all of the reasons that we were making these changes,” Ms. Aikins said.

“There were a lot of little things we did as well along the way,” she said. “For example, we quit calling it "the health plan' and started calling it "our health plan.' “

After that initial forum, she and her colleagues fanned out across campus to meet with representatives of dozens of academic and administrative departments.

“Kari proved quite capable of braving conditions that some might consider pretty hostile,” Mr. Glisson said. “It was not a universally welcome message, at least initially. Kari demonstrated a lot of talent and tact by presenting all of this information to our employees in a very calming, collected and articulate manner.”

Ms. Aikins and Mr. Glisson said a critical component of the campaign's success was drawing on the university's resources, including the student-run advertising agency to develop the Top Life program's branding and the communication specialists at Sibson Consulting.

“We had a lot of help from them in trying to formulate a communication plan that included ... different delivery systems and methodologies, so that we could reach as many of our employees as possible,” Mr. Glisson said.

Conversely, Norman Jacobson, Sibson Consulting's senior vice president of higher education benefits, said what seemed to resonate most with employees was Ms. Aikins' emphasis on the collaborative relationship between the university and its employees.