Transition benefit materials toward plain language

August 1, 2011

A report shows that two out of five adult Americans have difficulty understanding the basic health information and services needed to make decisions.

In fact, a report from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that two out of five adult Americans have difficulty obtaining, processing and understanding the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Low health literacy leads to less compliance with prescribed treatment instructions, more errors with medicine, failure to seek preventive care, longer hospital stays and higher risk for hospitalization in general.

It's time for employers to provide simpler "plain language" voluntary benefits communications to help employees make educated benefits selections.

Plain language is straightforward, jargon-free content. For example, use the word "doctor" instead of "primary care physician" or the word "drugs" instead of "prescription medication."

Plain language also addresses the reader as "you" and uses relatable situations in communications materials to help employees familiarize themselves with voluntary benefits before they select coverage.

Why is plain language important? By switching to plain language communications, enrollees will better understand and engage in their benefits, leading to improved well-being. Plain language eliminates text-heavy benefits materials and potentially reduces administrative costs associated with misinterpretation of coverage.

According to research from the non-profit Center for Health Care Strategies, the financial effect of poor health literacy costs the U.S. economy between $106 billion and $203 billion annually. This provides an opportunity for benefits administrators to deliver plain understandable health benefits communications and reduce the financial impact of misunderstood health coverage.

THE PLAIN LANGUAGE TRANSITION

Employers must first observe their workforces. For example, is the culture heavy on email, or without access to computers? Would it be helpful to have scheduled office hours for administrators?

Depending on employers' observations, the method for obtaining employee feedback may change. One simple, albeit traditional, method is to send a straightforward survey to employees and evaluate their responses before adopting new media or other channels for voluntary benefits communications.

Employers should use peer-to-peer communication. Prior to dispensing plain language communication, employers should share materials with a focus group of peers. Make sure the language makes sense, can be understood easily and answers questions.

Delivery of the message is critical. When possible, incorporate stories into communications. Personal anecdotes will add an element of comfort and will resonate well with employees.

The transition to plain language benefits communication is not difficult, and it meets the needs of employers and employees through improved well-being. Cost-containment is also a secondary advantage of using plain language.

Beth Bierbower is chief operating officer for Humana Specialty Benefits which includes dental, vision, life, disability and worksite voluntary benefits.

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