Make it easy, make them happy

Signing up for benefits shouldn’t be arduous

Is putting packets together a drag? This HR department doesn’t have to. Tired of answering questions about benefits changes? St. Mary’s Health System in Athens, GA isn’t. Working with one of its insurance carriers, it moved from a manual to an automated enrollment process for its 1,200 employees, scheduled work time, one-on-one meetings with staff to explain the benefits and answer questions, and even showed the employees what each option meant to their paychecks to the penny.

The result: a process that in the past had lasted up to 10 weeks took only a month to complete. At the end, more than 90% of employees participated, and the three-person human resources staff saw their ongoing burden of answering benefits questions throughout the year decrease.

It’s possible, too, that declining turnover rates can at least in part be attributed to the program says Jeff English, vice president of human resources for the system, which includes one hospital, a long-term care facility, home health, and an assisted-living facility. "I think it boils down to them feeling like they are getting treated better."

In the past, employees brought home packets to fill out. "If we got them back at all, they were late or incomplete," says English. "I had worked with the insurer at another facility to have them come in and sit down with staff. When I started it here, I think it really impressed our employees. They like the special treatment."

A reason to get everyone together

There is a kick-off benefits fair where employees can either complete open enrollment, or simply ask questions and schedule one-on-one meetings. It features refreshments, prizes, and representatives from all the plans offered by the system. Last year some 800 employees attended.

St. Mary’s also stages a series of 60 to 70 sessions where any changes in the benefits packages are explained to staff in groups. The individual meetings take about a half hour and include computer presentations about how their particular choices for benefits packages will affect their paychecks. "We don’t have to do a thing," says English. "We just stand back and take employees to the insurance representatives. At the end of the open enrollment period, we upload a computer file system from the insurance company."

The carrier, which only has two of the several products offered at St. Mary’s, is prohibited from trying to get employees to use their products. "I won’t allow it," says English, who adds that the insurance company does not charge anything for the service as long as St. Mary’s offers at least two of its products. "From an employee perspective, it takes the grief out of the process," he says. "It’s one-stop shopping and we’re happy to spot them the 30 minutes of time to go through the process. It’s money well spent."

For the HR staff, what used to be a headache is now a breeze. The old system featured reminder notes to staff, phone tag, and a constant barrage of questions from 1,200 employees fielded by three human resources employees. Now, there are 10 insurance representatives who can answer questions from employees immediately. "I don’t think there is anything particularly magical about doing this," English says. But the results can be for staff. "Anyone can do this. You can make your employees feel important in a process that normally drives them crazy. The by-product is not only happier staff, but improved retention and even a recruiting tool."


• Jeff English, Vice President of Human Resources, St. Mary’s Health System, 1230 Baxter St., Athens, GA 30606. Telephone: (706) 354-3195.