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NEW YORK -- Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. did it again.

Winning Best of Show in the total benefits program category of the 25th Annual Business Insurance Employee Benefits Communication Awards, Pfizer proved as it did in 1996 that a program can be clear and concise -- and still be comprehensive.

New York-based Pfizer, with approximately 16,000 employees scattered across 31 work sites, continued to follow the strategy that made it stand out a year ago to employees and contest judges alike: use of a color-coded enrollment workbook that treats each type of benefit separately, step-by-step, with liberal use of questions and answers. In addition to the workbook, the program includes two booklets distributed in advance of the workbook. One highlights Pfizer program changes, and the other offers answers to employees' benefit questions.

This year, the benefits staff's challenges included explaining new plan options. The company wanted to help employees understand their new medical plan options, including the difference between indemnity plans and health maintenance organizations. Pfizer added 60 new HMOs beginning in 1997, and wanted workers to know how those plans worked and the distinguishing features among them.

Pfizer also was planning to offer long-term care insurance as an optional benefit and to unveil an automated telephone service that would send written information about any HMO to employees who called in a request.

In short, Pfizer knew its communication method was top-notch but had to make sure the latest twists in its program were transmitted effectively.

According to Elizabeth Borzomati, Pfizer's benefits manager, a series of Pfizer focus groups in April 1996 showed that workers wanted more help in reaching their choices of HMOs. In response, this year Pfizer published "Informed Decision: A Guide to Making Your Pfizer Pflex Medical Choice." The booklet, which was mailed to employees on Oct. 11, 1996, explains the ins and outs of managed care.

"Informed Decisions" is filled with hypothetical questions about benefits, anticipating employees' confusion. Just a few: What are my prescription needs? Can I use my regular pharmacy? What types of specialists do I need? How much will I have to pay? What if I need to dispute coverage or make an appeal?

The booklet focuses on key answers to the most important questions facing employees and serves as a convenient shortcut around the longer and denser enrollment workbook.

Another new booklet, released at worksites Sept. 23, 1996, explains what is new for 1997 and emphasizes that there are different benefit options for different people. A colorful drawing of a human figure is split into three segments so that many combinations of people can be mixed and matched -- a symbol of human difference.

The booklet describes the company's new long-term care coverage option and succinctly reviews other changes in the benefits process for 1997. The booklet issues one blunt warning: Medical costs are rising and employees should expect to pay more.

The workbook, mailed to employees' homes Oct. 18, 1996, is the backbone of the open enrollment process. On the inside pocket is the enrollment worksheet, which provides a simple process for choosing coverages. The worksheet also shows the worker's 1996 benefit selections for ready comparison.

"Our employees loved the materials we sent out," Ms. Borzomati said. "The workbook is one. They use it. It's something that they keep."

The 66-page workbook has some tricks up its sleeve. Stored in a pocket in the rear of the book is a computer disk called "OptionFinder" that allows workers to see the financial consequences of various levels of benefits. It is a refinement of a similar disk used last year. The book also contains a fact-filled 1997 HMO guide that compares several HMOs to each other and compares all of them with a benchmark that Pfizer deems minimally acceptable.

Because the Pfizer campaign was similar to those of recent years, "the challenge is to keep it interesting," said Monica Jerussi, a principal with The Kwasha Lipton Group in Fort Lee, N.J. Meeting that challenge was achieved through the use of illustration in some of the pieces and certain new features to the open enrollment process.

For example, Pfizer introduced a "rolling," or interim, confirmation statement of benefits, showing employees a tentative listing of their choices, to be followed by a "final" confirmation statement that cannot be changed.

Among other achievements, Pfizer had an "incredibly high" sign-up rate for its new LTC elective program -- about 15% -- by communicating its advantages to employees, Ms. Jerussi said.

According to a survey of Pfizer employees taken after the open-enrollment period last year, seven out of 10 employees found Pfizer's booklets helpful in making benefits choices, and 90% found the workbook easy to use and informative.