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Online benefits tools engage employees

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Employers are leveraging advanced benefits management technology to increase their employees’ comprehension and engagement in choosing and managing their own health care and retirement benefit plans.

Employers are also taking advantage of the expanding availability of web-based and mobile applications designed to provide individual employees’ with a greater understanding of health care delivery and utilization, including medical pricing transparency tools and personalized health care usage dashboards.

“The first part of this process is obviously helping your employees choose their benefits more effectively, and the second part is finding ways to make the whole process of actually using their benefits easier,” said Ashok Subramanian, CEO of Liazon Corp., a New York-based private health insurance exchange provider. “It’s great to give your employees access to all of these different health care, wellness and voluntary benefit options and provide comparison tools to help them through that selection process, but you also need to guide them on how to use them effectively.”

Broader data analytics and the expanding universe of mobile and web-based communication, consumer education and decision support tools present employers with a viable means of gradually and responsibly shifting control over the design, selection and day-to-day administration of their employees’ benefit plans to the employees themselves.

“More responsibility is being placed on the shoulders of the employees to make decisions about which plans are best for them and how they want to build their portfolio of benefits,” said Scott Carver, founder and president of PlanSource Benefits Administration Inc., a Denver-based employee benefits software company. “Technology has provided benefit managers with a way to streamline the process of educating and communicating with their employees about those decisions through digital platforms that allow for a lot of self-service, rather than staffing a big human resources department to handle those responsibilities for their employees.”

Additionally, employers are increasingly using new technology to drive engagement in workplace health management programs aimed at motivating employees’ to improve their health-related habits and decisions.

“Fundamentally, we’re asking employees to manage more of their own health and their own benefits than ever before,” said Seth Serxner, San Francisco-based chief health officer at Optum Inc. “In order to do that, all of these technologies and digital platforms are going to have to be made available as a resource. Otherwise, it’s unfair to put that kind of burden on the consumers.”

Web-based decision support and plan management tools are hardly a novel concept among employers that provide defined contribution retirement plans.

Employer survey data published annually by Lincolnshire, Illinois-based benefits broker Aon Hewitt over the past five years indicates that more than 60% of midsize and large U.S. companies have been offering online and/or mobile retirement spending calculators and modeling applications to their defined contribution plan participants since 2010.

More than half of employers have consistently offered online investment guidance and support according to asset classes during the same five-year period, and more than one third of employers provided access to personalized online investment advisory services through third-party vendors.

What has changed in recent years, experts say, is both the scalability and ease-of-use of the products available to employers.

“Technology is certainly increasing the breadth of specific retirement savings and financial wellness solutions that employers can provide to their plan participants,” said Lisa Chu, the Chicago-based retirement product development leader at Aon Hewitt. “It’s also making it easier for employers to build those solutions into their retirement benefits portals, which means a much more seamless user experience for employees.”

Similar technology-based decision support tools are beginning to proliferate within the group health benefits marketplace, particularly as rising health care costs and the impending onset of new coverage and reporting rules under health care reform continue to drive more employers toward high-deductible health plans, private health insurance exchanges and other cost-shifting strategies.

An Aon Hewitt employer survey released in June showed that 19% of employers were providing their employees with a broader range of health care benefit plans alongside web-based plan comparison, premium calculators and other decision support tools at the end of 2013, with another 7% indicating they would do so during the 2014 plan year.

“Within the decision support space, there are plenty of tools out there that allow us to bring in data from multiple sources, such as payroll, employee surveys and the systems we use to manage our health reimbursement and health savings accounts,” said Don Garlitz, executive director for exchange solution at Bswift L.L.C., a Chicago-based benefits consulting and information technology services firm. “We can then plug all of that data into different algorithms in order to make the benefits decision process easier and more accurate for employees.”

Technology is also reshaping employers’ strategies for communicating with employees about their benefit programs, as employers are becoming more adept at tailoring their use of various communication channels according to employees’ needs and preferences.

“As much as possible, you have to make sure that your messaging is relevant to the individual or group of individuals you’re going for,” said Scot Marcotte, a Chicago-based managing director of talent and HR solutions at Buck Consultants at Xerox. “Employers can borrow a lot from the data they’re already collecting as plan sponsors to more closely align the messaging to the individual.”

In particular, recent studies show a sharp increase in the percentage of employers capitalizing on the growth of mobile technology, by offering tablet and smartphone applications designed to deliver personalized health care and retirement messaging and alerts to plan members.

“You can have a lot of success using technology to deliver targeted reminders about upcoming retirement seminars that you’re hosting, or reminders that they’re missing out on a company match, or that they have stock options that are about to expire,” Mr. Marcotte said. “Whatever it is that gives them an opportunity to improve their retirement plan, making sure that they’re reminded on a personal level helps.”

Looking ahead, experts say the next great technological innovation in benefits management will likely come in the form of a single-site electronic platform that integrates all of the separate tech-based health care and retirement enrollment, decision support and communication tools employers provide for their employees.

“We’re getting more and more requests from employers to blend the retirement tools with the health and welfare side into a single application,” PlanSource’s Mr. Carver said. “I don’t think anyone’s really cracked the code on it yet, but there certainly is an opportunity for whoever gets there first to be a big winner.”

Additionally, experts say benefit managers have expressed a growing interest in using data analytics tools designed specifically to track and qualify problematic participant behaviors within retirement plans. This included employees taking loans or hardship withdrawals from their retirement savings — referred to as plan leakage — or large employee populations not saving as much as their company’s annual 401(k) plan match, Aon Hewitt’s Ms. Chu said.

“Over time, I think employers are going to use analytics more and more to look at how they can better influence participant behavior and address some of those challenges, but I feel like we’re at the very beginning of that,” she said.