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Online Benefit Enrollment

By: Paul Cluett

Gathering information from employees has been done traditionally on paper and, more recently, via web-delivered ‘dumb’ PDF forms. Both of these methods require multiple entry scenarios which are costly and error-prone. Paul Cluett, of Cronus Technologies, explains how ‘smart’ forms can collect existing employee data to create current information.

Benefit enrollment is a significant ongoing challenge to insurance providers, brokers, and employers alike. Increased use of the Internet in daily life has spawned solutions which are loosely named ‘online open enrollment.’ As more clients adopt Internet usage, they will typically request it for more and more functions. Online open enrollment is now a factor in the highly competitive environment of benefits administration.

Solutions are required which satisfy the needs of each stakeholder in the business. The needs of shareholders, clients, their employees, and your employees must be addressed without breaking the bank in the process.

What Is Open Enrollment?

Two events fall into the enrollment category. The first is the annual migration of employees to your telephone line and office two days (or less) before open enrollment ends. This results in clogged phones and faxes, full eMail inboxes, and long line-ups of employees who don’t understand what they are supposed to do.

In addition to this, event one creates huge piles of paper, frustrated staff, and equally frustrated employees who try to deal with the spider’s web of providers, plans, benefits, and regulations. Information, once captured somewhat legibly on a paper form, is now entered, usually in three or four different places, on multiple computer systems. And sometimes it’s right.

The second event is what is known as a status change. Marriage, birth, death, divorce, adoption, and other life-changing events require a change in the benefit status of the employee and the employee’s family. This means filling out another form. That form can be downloaded from the web, obtained at the place of employment, or from the benefits broker.

What Does Effective Open Enrollment On The Web Do?

The primary task of any web-based open enrollment system is three-fold:  It captures employee information, either for the stated open enrollment period or for those ‘change’ events that are a fact of life for all of us.  It provides employees with easily accessible and secure information about their benefits which are specific to their circumstances.  It provides meaningful reports to stakeholders that reflect the current status of your business. Information is currency, but obsolete information is dangerous. It can also be costly.

Implicit in these requirements is the need for a web portal to encompass the tasks stated above, as well as provide security, usage statistics, and workflow.

“Just fill out this form ….” are words that strike terror into the hearts of most employees. Or, they create a corresponding amount of pushback and error filled documentation. Gathering information from employees has been done traditionally on paper and, more recently, via webdelivered ‘dumb’ PDF forms. Both of these methods require multiple entry scenarios which are costly and errorprone.

‘Smart’ Form

One possible solution would be a ‘smart’ form. This form would ideally auto-populate from an existing database according to employee login. Other features on the form would ‘auto-format’ certain entries so that dates, phone numbers, and so forth would be consistent within the employer’s database. The appropriate fields would ‘auto-calculate.’ Drop-down menus would provide the only acceptable responses to selected questions and these would be based on prior answers the employee provided. If a certain part of a form was not relevant to the employee’s situation, no entry would be permitted in that area.

On ‘submit,’ the form would tell the user if there were any missed areas or mistakes and clearly outline the skipped or incorrect entries. A properly completed form would then be securely transmitted to the data warehouse. The employee would then be shown the form in a ‘locked’ format so they could print it for their own records.

Behind the scene, the entire form would be parsed and every answer indexed for searching and reporting purposes. New hires or status changes would be updated as they were entered. This would provide the employer and benefit providers with a dynamic and current census file. All information would be stored in a secure, fully redundant data storage and Application Service Provision (ASP) environment.

The only requirement for the employee is access to the Internet and an Internet browser. The forms can be provided in different languages and be entirely consistent with the paper forms the employer and the employee know. The forms can be filled in at work, at the public library, or at a public Internet access point, if necessary.

Another costly nightmare in the benefits industry is the provision of Summary Plan Documents (SPDs).

These documents, required by law, outline the benefits each employee and plan member is entitled to, with all of the small print, dotted ‘I’s, and crossed ‘T’s from the benefit providers. Currently, these must be mailed, with all of the inherent expense and delay, to each and every plan member. This process can take months.

However, an ideal Internet open enrollment system would ‘recognize’ each employee as they entered or ‘logged in’ to the system. The system would then bring up the appropriate benefit information for each plan member. The system should be flexible enough so that an administrator can change the content of the benefits as required without having to access the IT department or developer to do so. The changes ideally can be made using familiar workplace tools such as Microsoft Word, Excel, or Adobe Acrobat. A built in ‘approval’ process would create workflow around the content.

The SPD can now be delivered, securely, via the Internet, directly to the individual as they log into the system. The result is a significant and demonstrable reduction in time and expense required to deliver a required document.

Reporting varies widely from business to business and from application to application. Enterprise level reporting solutions, which give you the information you require, are typically complex, inflexible, and costly. The information contained in those reports is often outdated as well.

The Ideal Solution

You likely require tools to produce high quality reports that can be presented in various output formats, from textual to interactive charting. Perhaps you need to integrate with a legacy payroll or Human Resources Information System (HRIS) residing on a mainframe. As noted before, all the information that would be captured by your smart forms now resides safely in a data repository. You can present this data in eXtensible Markup Language (XML) which is an ‘open’ format that can be presented as text, graphics, or downloaded for use in spreadsheets.

These reports can now be presented to your key business audiences in a secure manner over the Internet. Most significantly, these reports now provide timely business intelligence to allow stakeholders to make informed business decisions. Several reputable vendors supply comprehensive online open enrollment solutions. These vary in functionality and price and a careful examination of your own needs and the vendor’s product is required.

In order to be truly effective, potential web native open enrollment candidates must include a tightly integrated solution that encompasses smart forms for data entry and highly flexible content management (CMS), as well as a sophisticated, dynamic reporting tool.

A web portal which ties these modules together provides security, smoothes workflow, and allows for integration into thirdparty HRIS or payroll solutions is a significant feature as well. With this type of solution, ROI is typically tangible and timely.

Paul Cluett is a business development associate with Cronus Technologies (

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