While I don't have the benefit of a crystal ball through which to see exactly how all of this will play out, this month's employee benefits segment of the Cobb Business Journal will focus on best practices in three key areas: "Being Compliant," "Being Competitive" and "Being Communicative."
In order to be compliant, employers need to first and foremost ensure they are providing accurate and timely notices to employees including, the required Notice of Exchanges, Summary of Benefits & Coverage documents, etc., while keeping their eye on the design of their benefit plans and contribution strategy as the Employer Mandate looms in 2015 for employers with more than 50 full-time employees.
To that end, unequivocally ensuring that you are accurately classifying (and counting) workers is very important given that enforcement of the Fair Labor Standard Act and its worker classification rules are being enforced as never before. For employers who are unsure of where they stand with respect to FLSA, making a small investment in the time of a qualified benefits attorney will be a lot less expensive than waiting and learning from the Department of Labor that you have been misclassifying workers.
In order to be competitive, employers need to think long and hard about why they do or don't offer benefits to their employees currently. The majority of the employers with whom I speak confirm they offer coverage as a means of ensuring a healthy workforce and out of a desire to attract and retain top talent for their organization. If that is the case for your organization, ACA does very little to change the core value of an employee benefit plan to your organization.
What ACA does is increase the complexity of the framework within which benefit plans are offered while, at the same time, introducing some new tools and levers which your organization can use to optimize its benefit plan offering. Reduced underwriting requirements, community rating rules, private exchanges, etc. are all complex, but they provide opportunities that can be used to create value for employers who know how to navigate the process. To that end, having access to a quality benefits broker/consultant who has expertise regarding ACA and the resources needed to leverage the new options for your benefit can be invaluable.
Lastly, while most employers have at least given some thought as to how they intend to ensure compliance and maintain competitiveness, very few have diligently thought through what they need to do to effectively communicate with their employees regarding the impact ACA will (or in most cases, will not) have on their benefit plans and options in the year to come.
There is no question in my mind, many of the required notices employers are sending out to employees are doing more harm than good since employees lack the context through which to understand what the notices actually mean to them. In particular, the Exchange Notice, which should have been delivered to all employees no later than October 1, 2013, has very little relevance for most recipients.
Employers who take the time to communicate with their employees, and to some degree over-communicate, will equip their employees with the context through which they can begin to understand what all of this means to them. Health care premiums often rival the cost of rent/mortgage for many families, and the potential expense associated with selecting the "wrong" plan or neglecting to purchase coverage and then being stuck with massive medical bills, strikes fear in the heart of many employees.
With ACA implementation dominating the news, employers would be wise to communicate with employees to ensure that employees understand that their employer cares, is attuned to the issues, and is available to provide clarity in the midst of great confusion. At the very least, this effort to help employees understand how they are impacted with reinforce to them that you, their employer, care about them.
I strongly believe opportunity always lies in the midst of complexity. To that end, while ACA presents a lot of challenges for employers, it also provides a number of opportunities. The employer who takes the time to understand the details (or surrounds themselves with external partners who understand the details) can emerge from the morass of complexity with untold opportunities in their efforts to ensure compliance, maintain competitiveness, and effectively communicate to effectively attract and retain key talent to their organization.
David Bottoms is senior vice president of The Bottoms Group and a principal of TBX Benefit Partners.