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Changing Your Health Plan Due to Obamacare? Survey Staffers First

Changing Your Health Plan Due to Obamacare? Survey Staffers First
Image credit: polk-county.net

Part of our ongoing Obamacare strategizing timeline to help businesses prepare for the upcoming health-care reforms. 

A few years ago, insurance provider Aflac surveyed its employees about its benefits plan, inviting staffers to write responses to open-ended questions about what they did and did not like about their health-plan choices. 

Much to the surprise of Aflac's top executives, several employees divulged that they were single parents who were not happy that they had to pay for expensive family coverage, says Audrey Boone Tillman, executive vice president of Aflac Corporate Services in Columbus, Ga. So Aflac came back the next year with an additional option that was affordable for both the company and its single working parents: a medical plan that would cover one adult plus his or her children. "We wouldn't have put that on our radar if we hadn't done the survey," Tillman says.

Now that you have an additional year to comply with the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, you should consider surveying your employees before you start plotting any changes to your health plan. Regardless of whether you'll be offering health coverage for the first time in 2015--perhaps because you have more than 50 full-timers and are required to under the law--or you need to change your plan to be fully compliant, a workplace survey can put you on the right path. "Benefits are a tremendous investment, and you want to make sure they're of value to employees. There's no better way to find that out then to ask them," Tillman says.

A good way to start your survey is to ask employees to rank all the current features of your plan, along with potential services you might add. This should include dental, vision, and mental health coverage, plus niche services like subsidies for gym memberships or adult day care for elderly parents. Even if you don't think you can afford to offer all those features, just knowing whether employees want them can be valuable. "If you're a small employer, it might not be feasible to offer more than one plan, so the primary goal is to figure out how to develop a plan that meets most of the needs of most people," says Christopher Ryan, vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP, a firm that specializes in outsourcing, payroll and benefits consultancy. 

In the survey, you should also ask employees to rank various options for out-of-pocket expenses and provider choices. Ask them to rank a high-deductible plan with a low premium against a low-deductible plan with a high premium, for example.

"'How important is it for you to keep your current doctor? Or would you be open to an option that has a restricted provider network but is much lower in cost? Give people these hypotheticals and ask them to rank them," Ryan says.

Then you can finish the survey with a couple of open-ended questions that allow employees to volunteer their suggestions.

Doing employee surveys about health care can be tricky, however, because patient privacy regulations prohibit companies from gathering specific information about employees' health conditions. You can ask them to rank the importance of maternity benefits, for example, but you can't ask whether they intend to get pregnant in the near future. If you're afraid of crossing the line when it comes to patient privacy, it might be a good idea to assign the development and administration of the survey to a third party, such as your insurance broker or a human-resources outsourcing firm.

Another benefit of using a third-party administrator is that you may be able to collect more comprehensive information through the survey than you could if you were doing it yourself. If you already offer a health plan but are planning to change it, a broker or benefits advisor can do a "disruption survey," asking employees what doctors they use now and then cross-comparing the results with the list of doctors who participate in the potential new plan. Then that third-party provider can tell you, without divulging too many private details, which employees would be disrupted by the change, meaning they would no longer be able to see their favorite doctors.

"You can determine if the people who are disrupted are important or not," says David Lewis, founder and president of Operations Inc., a Norwalk, Conn.-based HR outsourcing firm. "If you're choosing a plan where everybody's doctor participates except for your CEO's wife's doctor, you have to rethink it."

If you're running a startup and you just can't afford to hire someone to manage a survey, you can still find a way to gauge your employees' sentiments about health care. "Have a focus group or town hall and talk with people about what's missing from their benefits," Aflac's Tillman says. "That way the employees have some ownership in the process."

Arlene Weintraub has over fifteen years of experience writing about health care, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology and the author of a book on the anti-aging industry, Selling the Fountain of Youth (Basic Books, 2010).She has been published in USA Today, US News & World Report, Technology Review, and other media outlets. She was previously a senior health writer for BusinessWeek.

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