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Online tools can help turbo-charge benefits administration for small to midsize employers

By Bruce Shutan
 
Since many small to midsize employers don’t have the luxury of a dedicated HR staff, whoever is charged with administering the company’s employee benefits package typically juggles several major responsibilities. For example, the company president or CFO may also be the benefits administrator. That’s why it’s imperative that benefits carriers provide administrative solutions that leverage technology and are easy to use as well as convenient. 
 
On the employee side of the benefits equation, key self-service capabilities enable employees and managers alike to verify benefits, look up network providers and monitor claims status – all of which are designed to provide quick answers to questions while stemming the flow to busy benefit plan administrators in small to midsize firms.
 
Well-designed online tools address the highest-volume transactions across a number of areas, including anything from reviewing and paying bills to printing commonly used forms, explains Chris Swanker, second vice president for Group Worksite & e-Business with The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.
 
Guardian, which serves the small and midsize employer market, has taken a leadership role in helping brokers and advisors deliver more effective benefit administration and management solutions for their clients and prospects.
 
“As these services become more ubiquitous, Web sites will evolve to provide additional content and greater information about benefits benchmarking, managing benefit costs and more strategic initiatives,” he predicts. Other exciting technical capabilities which could be on the horizon include multimedia functionality featuring video chats and streaming video.
 
User-friendliness
 
But the added firepower cannot come at the expense of understandability and ease of use. Swanker suggests that benefits Web sites need to be both intuitive and user-friendly. It’s important, for instance, that screens be designed to minimize the number of clicks to access frequently used features.
 
Guardian’s marketing research methods for obtaining end-user feedback include online surveys, focus groups and observing customers at work first hand. On the analytical side, the insurer is able to monitor how transactions occur through the Web site, including the amount of time users spend on each page in order to continually enhance capabilities to meet customers’ needs.
 
Swanker says most online activities are traced to benefit plan administrators navigating though the online billing process, which includes premium payment as well as updating data to reflect the arrival of new hires, employee terminations or life-event changes.
 
Additionally, information is securely shared across multiple stakeholders that include brokers, employers, employees and health care providers – each using it for different purposes, necessitating nuances in the online presentation.
 
For example, the ability to verify benefits eligibility enables plan participants to know their coverage terms and employers know they’re covering the right group of employees when paying claims. Network providers rely on the data to validate patient coverage.
 
“How the information is organized can make a big difference in any site’s usability,” according to Swanker, who notes that Guardian has made its mark in terms of using the voice of its customers to develop these online tools. “It comes down to what information is most important to them and intuitively where they would look for it.”
 
Broker guidance
 
Brokers and advisers are able to acquire and retain customers by helping them understand and leverage the features and functionality of this technology. Indeed, the aim is to ensure their employer clients are taking full advantage of all the tools carriers are making available.
 
“Employers are heavily relying on guidance on these issues from their brokers,” he says, noting how the conversation becomes elevated to a higher level. “By making clients aware of online tools available through the carriers they represent, brokers can further help employers offer quality benefits while still managing to budget constraints. Tools like access to employee wellness information as part of their plan adds long-term value to a package. That’s the strategic shift that is happening.”
 
At the end of the day, Swanker believes benefit plan administrations can use online tools to improve the performance of their duties at a time they find most convenient – as opposed to necessarily reducing their workload. The result is that, either way, they will be freed up to make a more strategic contribution.
 
“But the sites also can be used as a communications vehicle that provides insight into how the employer may want to consider altering their benefits to meet their most pressing needs,” he says, “whether it’s mitigating any future increase in health plans or improving the ability to attract and retain the highest quality of employees.”
 
Despite the paperless nature of this benefits administration environment, Swanker notes that another added plus to each of the stakeholders is the ability to verify plan changes and transactions every step of the way along a thorough paper trail. “People nowadays require a confirmation that something has occurred,” he says. “Using these vehicles provides the ability to go back into their transaction logs and see every transaction that’s been made both on the banking side and in terms of employee activity.”
 
Bruce Shutan, former managing editor of Employee Benefit News, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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