Open enrollment season has started for many, a time when employees must make decisions about their health care and retirement plans. This can be a confusing and frustrating task as employees mull over making changes, and today's tough economy promises to make things even more difficult than usual. But there are things employers can do to help educate their employees.

"While educating employees about the different options has always been important, this year it is even more so," says Sam Gibbs, a senior vice president at eHealthInsurance, a licensed health insurance company.

Indeed. The recently released Employer Health Benefits 2009 Survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Education Trust found that 21 percent of firms offering health care benefits are "very likely" to raise workers' premium contributions next year, and 16 percent say they are "very likely" to raise deductibles. Four percent are "very likely" to restrict eligibility for coverage, and 2 percent say they are "very likely" to drop health coverage altogether. This is on top of a 5 percent increase in premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance for family coverage.

So, it's clear that employers should hold a couple of mandatory, face-to-face company meetings with print and Web materials that clearly communicate the different choices employees need to make. If possible, provide worksheets and spreadsheets that illustrate the information in easy-to-digest chunks. Calculators that individuals put their personal information into are also useful.

Avoid health care industry jargon and instead put the information into plain English; it turns out that many employees don't understand health savings accounts or even the definition of a deductible. They're too embarrassed to ask because they think they should already know. Encourage questions and follow up to help them understand. Try to encourage spouses to attend the meetings, as health care is a family decision; holding meetings at lunch or after work will make it easier for a couple to attend.

To further direct your employees, here's a checklist to potentially help them save money on premiums, according to eHealthInsurance. Also, check out the company's just-released Health Insurance Buyers Guide .

  1. Premium increases: If the premium is increasing and lower premiums are a priority for an employee, suggest that he or she consider opting for a less expensive plan. "Small-business owners should work with a broker who represents five or six carriers to get the broadest range of options," says Gibbs.
  2. Benefits usage: Some families aren't big consumers of health care benefits. In these cases, direct employees to buy only what they need and potentially save on the monthly premium. A high-deductible plan is a smart choice if they are prepared to pay the necessary amount of deductible before the benefits kick in.
  3. Spousal plans: Have employees check their spouses' health care plans to see if the share of the premium is more or less than their plan. It may be more cost-effective to switch plans.
  4. Other options: Depending on health conditions, it may be less expensive for certain family members to be on a separate plan than the employer-sponsored plan. Children's policies in the individual market can be affordable. Sixty percent of children's policies had monthly premiums of $100 or less in 2007, and the average premium for children 18 and younger was $92 per month, according to an eHealthInsurance survey. Have employees do the math on separate policies; they can price individual and family plans online.

Open benefits enrollment is never easy, but these guidelines can make it less challenging.

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