Forget about haunted houses and scary movies: The scariest part of October may be the start of open enrollment season, when millions of Americans get to make changes to their health insurance plans and other company benefits for the coming year.
More than half of Americans spend less than half an hour making their selections, according to the 2015 Aflac Open Enrollment Survey. Even though it may be unpleasant (the same survey found that a quarter of employees would rather clean their toilet), it’s worth investing the time to be sure you’re making the best possible choices.
That’s especially true since your benefits package may be different than it was last year thanks changing regulations and employer trends. “Open enrollment is a good time to take a step back and reassess your needs,” says Craig Rosenberg of Aon Hewitt.
Here are 8 ways your benefits package may be changing:
1. Higher costs for insurance. Even as the pace of increases in the cost of health care has eased, prices continue to rise. Premium costs this year rose 5 percent to an average of $6,251 this year ($17,545 for a family), with workers contributing an average $1,071 ($4,955 for a family).
In general, companies are absorbing some of that cost and passing the rest on to employees, either through higher premiums on traditional plans or shifting toward consumer-driven health plans, which allow workers to pay lower premiums in exchange for high deductibles and copays. “For people who haven’t had a high deductible before, there’s a mind shift that has to happen, and they have to be prepared for those costs upfront,” says Chad Parks, founder and CEO of Ubiquity Retirement and Savings, which provides retirement plans to small businesses.
2. Narrower health networks. As companies and insurers look for additional ways to reduce healthcare costs, they’re increasingly narrowing the networks of doctors and medical providers with whom they offer preferred rates. That means that even if you’re keeping the same insurance plan next year, you should check to be sure that visits to your doctors are still “in-network.”
3. Wellness programs with more strings attached. For at least a decade now, employers have been turning to preventative programs as a means to keep employees healthy and reduce their overall costs. “They’re controversial, but companies are still buying in and more and more companies are putting wellness programs in,” says Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader on benefits at WorldAtWork, a human resources association.
While the efficacy of such programs is still being debated, many employers are beginning to make changes to their programs. They’re offering bigger incentives but in order to get them employees have to do more than just participate in things like biometric screening or weight-loss programs; they have to show that the participation is producing results. Some companies are providing Fitbits or other wearable, health-tracking devices to employees to help monitor their activity.
In addition to monetary incentives, some companies are also offering those who complete certain health activities access to an expanded choice of health plans. Just 6 percent of companies are doing this now but another 2 percent will start in 2016, and more than half of companies plan on making plan access dependent on wellness programs in the next three to five years, according to a report by Aon Hewitt.
4. Telemedicine services. A few years ago, employers began offering on-site clinics to give workers cheap, easy access to healthcare for minor afflictions like rashes and ear infections, without taking up valuable work time commuting to and from a doctor’s office. Now they’re taking that trend a step further, working with insurers to provide telemedicine services so that workers (and their covered families) can access doctors via a phone call or video message at any time. Companies hope that workers will use these services, which cost around $25-$50 per use, rather than making unnecessary trips to more costly urgent care clinics and emergency rooms.
5. Automatic 401(k) features. Most companies now use auto-enrollment to get all workers at least a little bit invested into their 401(k) plans. Now, they’re taking the automation of the 401(k) further, allowing workers to opt-in for other features, including auto-escalation, which automatically increases the percentage of your paycheck you contribute each year, or auto-rebalancing, which will adjust your asset allocation to a set target if it gets out of whack following market moves.
6. A focus on student loans. PwC made headlines earlier this year for a new benefit under which it promised to pay up to $1,200 a year toward its employees’ student loans. Other high-profile companies are also eyeing workers’ loans, providing access to favorable refinancing programs or educational programs aimed at helping workers pay their loans off as quickly as possible.
7.Help with financial planning. Student loans aren’t the only personal finance area in which companies are offering new benefits. A growing number of companies are offering either access to planners or online tools in this area. “There is more and more interest about providing financial education to help workers not only in retirement planning but also about making better financial decisions now, such as staying out of debt or how to plan for having a baby or buying a house,” says Julie Stitch, director of research for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.
8. More generous parental leave policies Silicon Valley has taken the lead on this trend, with companies like Netflix and Microsoft making high-profile changes to their parental leave policies aimed at giving both men and women more time to adjust to the realities of being new parents and to more smoothly transition back into the workplace. “Parental leave expansion is going to continue this year, especially with the elections coming and the candidates talking about parental leave, and the U.S. being so far behind the other countries with regard to it,” says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.