Worse Than Tax Season

September 5, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Since she began working in the health benefits business, Denise Sherwood has not been in the Christmas spirit.

"I cannot tell you the last time I enjoyed a Christmas," said the principal at Spectrum Benefits LLC, an employee benefits plan company.

It's not because she doesn't like the holiday; it's because the stretch from now until New Year's Eve is the busiest time of the year for her, connecting insurance carriers with the businesses and determining the best plan for their employees.

"We start right after Labor Day and it's just crazy," she said.

While never slow, Sherwood said that with health costs continuing to rise every year, the season gets more and more active, with few companies ready to settle for last year's plan. In the past, Sherwood said some plans were sufficient for as many as three to five years, but now companies are always looking to get the better deal, which means more planning on her part.

"We have very few companies now that will just take an increase," she said.

Within that same timeframe, Sherwood said her company also has to be aware of the scheduling complications that the opening day of deer hunting season and the Thanksgiving holiday bring.

Sherwood said her staff usually works about 60 hours a week during the crunch time and meets with clients and their employees around the clock in order to accommodate first-, second- and third-shift schedules.

The process begins with creating a plan design, presenting it to the company's and then to the employees before the end of the year, then implementing the plan with the insurance carriers, which includes new booklets and identification cards.

The insurance carriers are also busy, Sherwood said, working to meet other deadlines in the same timeframe.

"It's just a big volume of work that needs to get done in a very short time," she said.

Companies are also trying to coordinate wellness or health management plans into their health care benefits, both for their own well-being and that of their employees. The health management plans, which are additional programs aimed at helping employees to get in shape or quit smoking or which encourage preventive care, are also developed during the end-of-year months, and then launched in January to correspond with the new year and its resolutions, Sherwood said.

Because of the changes in health care plans, Sherwood said she is trying to have companies look at their plans for a longer span of time — to plan for the next three to five years in order to better implement strategic plans and total compensation packages, many of them including wellness programs.

With the long-term strategies of health management plans and some of the new creative ideas that have begun to crop up in the health benefits industry, Sherwood said it is hard to put a concrete number on the savings.

"You don't really have the dollars that you can attach to it; you have the anecdotal situation," she said.

Sherwood used the example of one client that previously had only 18 percent of its employees participating in preventive tests before implementing a program that refunded premiums if the preventive measures were taken.

With 76 percent now taking preventive measures such as mammograms and prostate exams, two employees were diagnosed in early stages of cancer, resulting in better care earlier and also saving the patient and company money that would have been necessary had the disease progressed further.

"Both of them were very appreciative to the company to have that in place," Sherwood said of the preventive plan.

As health management plans and high deductible plans become more popular, Sherwood said employers need to be more proactive in informing employees about their options.

"I think it's important that employers be willing to devote the resources to educate their employees," she said.

Sherwood said some options are one-on-one meetings to help select health care plans, group meetings or payroll stuffers. Employees are also welcome to call Spectrum Benefits with problems, she said.

"It's too complicated," Sherwood said of the benefits plans. "People have questions."

With more and more companies downsizing their human resources departments, Sherwood said Spectrum Benefits has also gotten busier.

"As the plans become more complicated, our role increases," she said. "We like to be involved with our clients as much as possible."

Sherwood said most clients prefer it that way, leaving the benefits to her company while they focus on their own businesses.    

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