Three Tips for Moving BEYOND the ACA Conversation with Employees

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The words “Affordable Care Act” and “Obamacare” still manage to spark passionate debate at the dinner table. People are quick to leap on their soapboxes and spout personal horror stories about that “dreadful enrollment site,” the rolling enrollment period fiasco of 2014, and the myriad other ways the law is hitting home for them. The initial rollout and the on-again-off-again “deadlines” kept so many of us guessing our way through open enrollment season last year. It was enough to make you wish you’d never heard the words “health care reform” at all.

The Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) took a chance this week by dedicating the entire hour of their monthly luncheon to the discussion of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) impact on benefits communications. Judging by the packed room, most of us are indeed ready to deal with the issue and speak those three letters (ACA) in public again. I had the pleasure of moderating an interactive discussion between IABC members and our panel of experts, which included Elizabeth Byerly of Towers Watson and Kerry Parker of Kaiser Permanente.

Though the wounds of last year’s enrollment season still feel fresh, we find ourselves once more in the war room mapping out communications strategies for the year ahead. In the spirit of sparing our colleagues and clients any undue stress, I thought I’d quickly share three key tips and strategies that came out of the day’s interactive session.

 

1) Stop bringing up the $%&#@$ Affordable Care Act all the time!

Face it. We’re well into the post-ACA era. It is our new normal. Your employees GET IT by now – things are changing because of the Affordable Care Act. You may have been forced into some difficult decisions by the ACA but you can’t keep laying blame with the law for every unpopular change you have to communicate. Your employees don’t want you to join them in the ranks of the frustrated and confused, they want you to LEAD them to better solutions and a greater understanding of how to deal with this new reality. You don’t serve them by hiding behind the ACA as an excuse for why things are “just so bad and awful now.” Effective leaders are embracing the realities brought about by the ACA and rolling them into the broader context of their overall business strategy so that employees understand what’s expected of them in response to the changes ahead. Focus more on your Employee Value Proposition and less on the ACA as you educate employees about changes in your benefits structure. Sure there will be times when the ACA comes up naturally, but it’s not a shield or a scapegoat that’s going to resonate with your employees or alleviate your pain-points in any meaningful way.

 

2) Get in your employees’ faces—they want you to!

Prior to the open discussion at the IABC event, we polled the audience on a number of questions. One of the most telling poll questions asked the audience to rank six communications channels in order of preference when it comes to receiving benefits communications. The results were even across the board—with each of the six options pulling in an average of 16 -18%. This simply underscores what we already know about the demand to communicate via as many distribution channels as possible. In our poll, no single communication outlet drowned out another – there was hardly a 2% difference among them. However, there is a right time and place behind every touchpoint. Elizabeth Byerly, of Towers Watson, went on to elaborate that last year employees responded overwhelmingly in favor of in-person meetings when faced with complex changes in their benefits plans. After employees have had a chance to voice their specific questions and personal concerns face-to-face with a trusted adviser, additional communications can be layered in for ongoing support and future reference.

 

3) Develop and promote employee wellness programs.

The ACA is driving home one very significant goal—improved health outcomes. Key provisions in the ACA allow reductions of health care premiums by up to 30% based on employee participation in workplace wellness programs. The key to boosting participation lies in the consistent promotion of the program, visible celebration of employees’ successes, and timely communication of key health messages. Employees who signed up for benefits and programs in the Fall will surely have forgotten how to access them by the time the winter holidays have passed and life-as-normal resumes in January. When you commit to promoting these workplace health programs for the long-term you begin to see the deeper benefit of a transformed employee culture—which includes reduced health care costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased productivity.

Though our time was brief, we managed to cover a lot of ground during the interactive discussion. Inevitably, some questions may have gone unanswered or unvoiced due to time constraints or that common “oh crap, I should have asked…” moment we all experience as we drive back to work after an event like this.

So I thought we’d keep the conversation going online.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in communicating with your employees in the wake of the Affordable Care Act? Tell us in the comments below. 

IABC Atlanta Panel Discussion on Benefits Communications in the Age of the Affordable Care Act. Pictured (left to right): Jack Kinley, Lab Monkey Communications; Elizabeth Byerly, Towers Watson; Kerry Parker, Kaiser Permanente

IABC Atlanta Panel Discussion on Benefits Communications in the Age of the Affordable Care Act. Pictured (left to right): Jack Kinley, Lab Monkey Communications; Elizabeth Byerly, Towers Watson; Kerry Parker, Kaiser Permanente