The answers to 5 common open enrollment questions.

Open enrollment time is here once again. HR leaders should be ramping up their efforts to help employees make the best decisions during this period by arming them with the information they need. Many employees are reticent to spend time poring over benefit plans and policies, but their choices can significantly affect their medical expenses during the year. As an HR leader, it's critical to take the time necessary to explain to employees the importance of benefit selection and to provide clear answers to employees' questions, as well as the questions they should be asking but may not be.

Here are five common questions that HR leaders get asked during open enrollment and what you need to know in order to provide an answer.

1. When Is the Open Enrollment Period?

Each year, employees have an opportunity to change their health care coverage during the "open enrollment period." Employers set the dates for this period, but many do it during the fall and plans run from January 1 to December 31.

Once employees have selected their health care coverage options during this period, they are generally unable to change their plans until the following year's enrollment period. However, an employee may be eligible for a special enrollment period if they experience certain life events like getting married, having a baby or adopting a child.

2. What Is My Share of Medical Costs?

Don't expect that all employees will understand premiums and deductibles. They need to know that the premium is their monthly payment for health insurance — even though it may come directly out of their paychecks, they are still paying it. The deductible is the amount of healthcare expenses that they will be responsible for paying out-of-pocket before their health insurance kicks in. For instance, if they want a lower monthly payment (premium), they will likely have a higher deductible (out-of-pocket expenses before health insurance starts paying the medical bills).

3. What Are My Options for Covering Out-Of-Pocket Expenses?

While every employee will likely be responsible for some of their own health care expenses, many plans offer options to help with those. For instance, if your health plan offers a flexible spending account (FSA), employees need to know about it and understand what it is.

An FSA lets employees use pre-tax dollars to pay for eligible health care expenses. For those who participate, money is set aside from their paychecks before taxes are taken out. Employees can use those pre-tax dollars to pay for eligible health care expenses during the plan year, such as doctor visits or prescription drugs. There's one caveat, though — employees must use those dollars during the plan year or they lose the funds.

Some high-deductible health plans include an option for a health savings account (HSA), which is similar to an FSA because it lets employees deposit pre-tax dollars to pay for healthcare expenses. However, the funds in an HSA never expire, so employees can actually continue saving in those plans from year to year, adding up tax-free savings.

4. Are My Providers Covered?

Many employees are attached to their health care providers, so they may be particularly interested in learning whether certain doctors or hospitals are included in the health plan they are selecting at your organization. In fact, some employees may be willing to pay more money for a plan that includes a favorite doctor or a convenient emergency room location, so be prepared to give them information about which providers are included in your plan's network.

5. Do I Need Extra Coverage?

If your employer health plan doesn't cover dental health, chiropractic visits or vision, employees may want to add those services during the open enrollment period. Provide them with information about what is available and how much it will cost them.

To make the best health care choices for themselves and their dependents, employees need to carefully consider all of these questions during the open enrollment period. HR leaders can help make their decision easier by providing the answers to these questions in writing and by making themselves available to explain further or answer any questions.

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