If you completed your company’s annual open enrollment period for benefits and breathed a huge sigh of relief that you don’t have to think about them again for another year – you’re mistaken.

“It’s an active, year-round process,” said Kay Curling, chief human resources officer with Salient CRGT. “It’s not something that’s one and done.” Curling and Bart Yancey, co-founder and CEO of DirectPath, an industry leader in employee engagement, health care transparency, and compliance, discussed the importance of employee engagement in the health benefits process in a recent episode of the Security Clearance Podcast.

Yancey offered three steps employers can take to make the most of the benefits process:

  • Planning
  • Understanding your workforce demographics and having a communications strategy that speaks to those demographics
  • Engaging your employees personally

For Salient CRGT, communicating benefits changes is important, as well as tying them to company objectives. When the company moved exclusively to Consumer Driven Health Plans in 2011, there was a lot of communication directly from the CEO about how the change was a part of their overall business strategy, as well as why it was a good strategy for employees.

One of the ways Salient CRGT helps educate their employees about benefits is through working with partner, Direct Path. Direct Path can manage open enrollment seasons, new hiring processes, and health plan advocacy.

“Very few employees can really make sense of today’s employee benefits environment and understand what the choices are, how those choices interact with one another, what are the tax implications of the choices they have, what are the gaps in coverage….are they a young family, and might they need additional coverage? Do they have four kids playing contact sports, and might they need accident insurance. What are the things that that employee needs for his or her best in the short and long term?”

That’s where DirectPath steps in, to help human resources staff and recruiters provide employees and candidates with the benefit information they need.

Trends in Employer Health Care

For some employees, it may seem like health care benefits are changing every year. As plans change, some benefits are taken away and new ones are added.

“From a major medical plan standpoint we’re seeing employers try to consolidate options and make options a little simpler for their employees,” said Yancey. “A large majority of our clients giving their employees additional benefits that can compliment that major medical plan…employees largely have more choices now than they ever have.”

Both Yancey and Curling highlighted the importance of employers taking the time to engage their staff, and making those conversations an ongoing part of the year – not just an annual training. Employees, likewise, should advocate for themselves and ask questions about healthcare and benefit options as they come up.

What Questions Should Candidates Ask?

It’s not just current employees who need to be concerned with healthcare benefits. Candidates considering a new position should also make sure benefits come up in the hiring process.

“I think all candidates should be asking those questions,” said Curling. “The first thing that someone should ask is what’s the company’s benefit and compensation philosophy.” She noted asking how compensation and benefits fit into the company’s business strategy will tell you a lot. From there, candidates should ask questions that are relevant to them. But to ask the right questions, candidates need to be informed.

“One thing I would encourage any candidate to understand is what they can negotiate,” said Curling. “They can negotiate salary, and within a certain range, PTO [paid time off]. There are some things that absolutely cannot be negotiated, and when someone comes in and tries to negotiate on those things, it feels silly, and it makes them look uninformed. For instance, you can’t negotiate what your 401(k) match is going to be, that’s an IRS regulated program and companies can’t vary that. Likewise, you probably aren’t going to be able to negotiate what medical plan you’re eligible to participate in.”

Knowing what you can negotiate – and what you can’t – and then taking the initiative to have the conversation is key. Benefits are often something you fail to consider – until you need them or lose them. Curling and Yancey both emphasize that keeping the conversation proactive and ongoing makes sure the right benefits are there when you need them.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.