Small-business owners offer health benefits for a variety of reasons: they're genuinely concerned about their employees being taken care of, it's mandated in their state or they want to be more competitive to attract top talent (a large majority of employees consider a health plan to be the most important benefit they can be offered, according to a survey by the National Business of Group on Health).

A robust health benefits package can attract, retain and motivate talented people to work for you and help your company grow. According to the 2009 Mercer National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, health benefits make up about 14 percent of the payroll for small businesses that currently offer health benefits; a skyrocketing expense making it more difficult to keep offering those benefits. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study states that 59 percent of small companies are offering health care coverage, down from 65 percent 10 years ago.

If you do offer health benefits, it's a safe guess that you only tend to think about these plans once a year, when open enrollment season comes around. However, it's important to make the most of your investment. By making health benefits a year-round conversation, you can create a win-win situation for yourself and your employees. There are two key components to this win-win scenario: communication and utilization. Targeting both will provide you a better return on the money you invest in benefits, give your employees a better understanding of their plans, and should ultimately help to lower premiums.

Communication Drives Better Utilization
It's been said that a person needs to hear new information at least three times before it registers in their mind for immediate recollection. So you know employees aren't tapping into all the available options when faced with a health care need. It's important to repeatedly communicate all the additional tools and resources available to employees, all those plan supplements that they've probably forgotten or never knew about.

Better utilization of the components of a given plan will keep members engaged and promote proactive behavior. By the time open enrollment approaches, you can strategically tailor your plans to not only meet the needs of your company but also the needs of your individual employees, who are now smarter consumers of their health care plans.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
According to the Kaiser study found that only 14 percent of small businesses offering health benefits to employees also offer health risk assessment. That number needn't be so low, as many carriers offer online programs to help identify risk factors for common chronic diseases (e.g.: diabetes, congestive heart failure, asthma, obesity, cancer) and offer prevention programs. Why is this important?Because it's cheaper to prevent illness than treat it, that's why.

Some companies offer incentive programs to encourage employee participation in health and wellness programs because learning about potential risks and screenings for early detection helps decrease large claims. There are even regulatory proposals that could incentivize businesses to push proactive care. So, work with your carrier to learn about the tools and preventative resources available and then share this with your employees.

How Do You Make the Info Stick?
Bombarding employees with too much information at once can be overwhelming, so consider spreading the conversations throughout the year. Try to tie reminders to specific months or causes. For example, heart health is typically addressed in February and March is "Save Your Vision" month, a timely opportunity to refresh your employees on their vision plan (especially those who stare at computer screens all day). Flu season starts to peak in November, so a friendly reminder on the benefits of getting a flu shot would be timely (and you should mention the benefits to the company as a whole, as well as to the individual).

Other topics such as promoting use of a plan's nurse-line, using the mail-order program for maintenance medications, info about the costs of generic versus brand-name prescriptions or what hospitals and urgent care centers are in-network, are evergreen. Knowing these details before a crisis hits helps you capitalize on network discounts.

Consider how you're going to deliver the information; due to sensitivities it's important to select a medium that allows you to communicate with employees how they're most comfortable. Traditional options include inviting carrier representatives to join a staff meeting, including articles in the employee newsletter or creating an e-mail campaign. Non-traditional options, such as leveraging social media or text messaging may also be accepted by today's ever-growing digital population.

Too often, employees are disconnected from their health care plans--including proactive decisions they should exercise greater control over. Continuous conversations with employees will prompt them to make smart decisions moving forward, and help your company save money.