New year, new health plans: Help your employees avoid surprises

With open enrollment behind them, many employees push thoughts of their health coverage out of their minds, and that can be a mistake. By taking a few simple steps now, they can save time, money and hassle in the coming year. Employers can help their employees feel more positive about their health benefits and avoid costly mistakes with a couple of well-timed nudges.

“People need help getting started,” said Regina Nelson, director of consulting for engagement solutions with UnitedHealthcare. 

In a recent study, when describing which major purchase made them the most uncomfortable, 32 percent of consumers said health care and medical benefits – more than houses (25 percent), tech and electronics (16 percent) and cars (15 percent).Half of consumers said their top hassle with the health system is understanding health care benefits.And, last month’s article on health plan literacy  highlighted that the majority of employees said they don’t understand basic terminology about their plans, such as deductible, co-pay, co-insurance and out-of-pocket. After all, it’s complex, dull and forces them to think about unpleasant possibilities.3

An appeal to their wallets can go a long way 

To get around this reluctance to spend time understanding and setting up their health plans, employers can appeal to employees’ interest in saving money.

For example, most people don’t realize that the cost for similar procedures in the same area can vary widely. A colonoscopy or an MRI at a hospital can cost two to three times more than at a stand-alone surgery center. Explaining to your employees that they could save up to $1,500 by choosing an alternative to the ER can suddenly make them more interested in filling their knowledge gaps.4

UnitedHealthcare offers a number of resources to aid communications planning – quizzes, videos, fliers, emails and infographics. Employers should think about their workforce dynamic and select the channels that make the most sense.

“It’s critical to understand the culture and the formats that have proven to be successful in past efforts,” said Holly McVey, Director, Implementation, Client Services & Implementation with UnitedHealthcare.  

In addition, keep in mind that it’s often the spouse of the employee who is driving the health decisions in the household, so shareable or physical materials sent to the employee’s home may make sense.5

“Employee communication needs to be continuous – it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Nelson said.  A well-timed drumbeat of information and encouragement shows the best health engagement results.

Getting their health plan ID cards and a head start  

UnitedHealthcare offers employers the opportunity to send a “Getting Started” communication when health plan ID cards are mailed to new members, outlining steps they should take immediately, even before the plan year begins.

 “Everyone opens their ID card mailing, so it’s our first good opportunity to get members on the right path,” Nelson said. 

With their ID card in hand, employees are encouraged to check that their doctor is in their network. If their doctor is not, they can search for one who is. The UnitedHealthcare Health4Me® mobile app, with a 4 ½ star rating on iTunes®, is a convenient way to do this.6

The final months of the year are also a good time to let employees know about included benefits like a 24/7 nurse line. It’s a good place to start if employees have a health question, and they can program the number into their phones now.

When the plan begins, begin using the plan

The day or week that a new plan begins is a good time to make sure employees know how to use it.® is a personalized place for members to find care, compare costs, view claims and more.  It notably drives health engagement, as nearly 70 percent of members who use rate their understanding of their plan as excellent, as opposed to 55 percent who do not use, according to a UnitedHealthcare survey.

A persistent myth is that employers and insurers don’t want people to use their insurance. In fact, using their benefits for such things as preventive care is the single most important way your employees can get off to a good start with their new plan. Bust this myth by encouraging your employees to make their first appointment for their recommended preventive care, such as flu shots and other immunizations, annual physicals and screenings for such common but serious diseases as breast cancer or colorectal cancer.These services are valued at hundreds and even thousands of dollars if bought independently, but there’s no incremental cost for covered employees. Understanding this value helps employees appreciate their health benefit.

Keep the communication coming

Not all employees will engage at the same time So an ongoing communications program has the best chance of hitting an individual with the information they need at the right moment. For instance, knowing where to go for care, and the relative costs, can be a big ‘a-ha’ for many.

“If you have a cold or a sinus infection, you don’t necessarily need to go to the ER – and you will save a considerable amount of time and money if you choose an alternative care setting,” Nelson said.  

Options like urgent care, a nurse line or telemedicine are typically included in most group plans, but are not widely understood by employees.

Find a full library of resources you can use at


2017 Consumer Health Mindset Survey, Aon Hewitt, NBGH, Kantar Futures

2017 Consumer Health Mindset Survey, Aon Hewitt, NBGH, Kantar Futures

What Your Employees Think About Your Benefits Communication. New Research from Jellyvision conducted by Harris Poll. Sept. 8, 2016.

Check, choose, go. UnitedHealthcare.

U.S. Department of Labor. General facts on women and job based health. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2005.

UnitedHealthcare Health4Me® Mobile Application. UnitedHealthcare.

Preventive care. UnitedHealthcare.

iTunes is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.