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The Future of Employee Benefits: An Interview with Carol Harnett

 
Carol A. Harnett is a consultant, speaker and writer in the fields of health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. She also writes the Benefits column for HR Executive. You can follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett. We spoke with her about the emerging trends and developments in the employee benefits landscape.

What do you see is the biggest change in the benefits landscape in the past 10 years?

The single largest change in benefits during the last decade has been theemployee benefit trends shift to consumer-directed/high-deductible health plans. Certainly, we've been asking employees to "put more skin in the game" through greater financial contributions to all benefits, but HDHPs require more than simply an increased financial stake. Employees/consumers need to learn new skill sets, including negotiating what they pay for health care services and questioning health care providers about the recommendations they make regarding testing, surgeries and the use of generic prescriptions. This change in how we interact with health care providers, clinics and hospitals challenges how we've built our relationships with caregivers that's difficult for even people with a medical background to negotiate.

What's the biggest change you see coming on the horizon?

There is a great deal of speculation in the benefits industry that employers are moving toward providing employees with a fixed dollar amount for all benefits and then providing a "benefits store" where employees can spend their money on the benefits they want. In some ways, the cafeteria plans of old have come full circle. The difference in this case is the growing use of voluntary benefits by employers to round out their benefit offerings.

What is the most common mistake you see employers make when it comes to communicating with their workers about their benefits?

I don't believe employers are making mistakes per se in how they communicate their benefit packages. I believe most employers are trying to get the best advice possible and do as much as they can. The difficulty that arises for employers is how to balance the costs associated with benefits communications versus the most effective methodologies. One approach definitely does not fit all.

A good case can still be made for paper communications that are mailed to employees' homes since this engages the employees' spouses. Online communication and enrollment are becoming a staple method for many employers. Engaging videos and even online games are being used effectively to assist a portion of the employee population.

Regardless of how employers communicate their employee benefits, customization and personalization of the material is the single most effective way to capture employees' attention.

The long-term care market is in turmoil right now. What do you predict is going to happen?

Great question since I recently wrote columns on caregiving (Caring for the Caregivers)  and long-term care products (A "Good" Strategy for Long-Term-Care Benefits).

Most of the LTC experts believe we're headed toward a completely revamped product. As Jesse Slome, executive director for the American Association for Long-Term Care pointed out, the original LTC product -- designed in the 1980s -- was marketed to senior citizens to offset the costs of nursing home care. Now, LTC is associated with allowing people to age at home.

From an employer perspective, I believe we're going to see more employers migrate to either an individual offering with a group discount or voluntary universal life policies with embedded LTC riders.

What are you favorite resources for staying on top of the latest trends and developments in the employee benefits landscape?

Well, of course, I read Human Resource Executive! Even though I'm their benefits columnist, I believe they do a terrific job with educating human resource and benefits professionals via their education mix of print magazine, online magazine, blog, webinars, Twitter posts and the LinkedIn discussion group.

The way I personally look for trends is to read materials outside the traditional avenues. I spend time reading a lot of the original research that's presented in vehicles like Health Affairs, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, Fast Company, Wired  and the Harvard Business Review. Of course, I also scan the New York Times -- particularly the business section -- and The Wall Street Journal every day.

Why? Consider that the employee benefits trends such as the customization and personalization of benefit offerings and communications sprang from the customization phenomenon most of us experienced via shopping sites like Amazon.

Winston Benefits is a HR solutions company that helps businesses automate and streamline their employee benefit programs. Custom designed and developed client specific solutions help enrich their total compensation and rewards programs while optimizing processes such as benefit communications, enrollment and administration.

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