3 Reasons You Need a Professional Writer for Your SPDs

By JoAnn Gulbin
Communication Consultant 

Raise your hand if you procrastinate updating your Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs). Yep, thought so.

While we all know that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires SPD updates on a regular basis, actually making the updates can be time-consuming and difficult, and can fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

That’s where a professional benefits writer can help. While your first instinct may be to look just to your ERISA attorney or plan administrator, partnering with a writer who has SPD expertise can ensure a better outcome. Here’s why:

SPDs are required by ERISA to be written in plain English and easily understood by the average employee. A lawyer’s focus on fulfilling the requirements of ERISA can mean clear and concise descriptions of key plan provisions are often sacrificed. While it’s essential to include legal input and review during the SPD drafting process, it’s best to leave the writing to someone focused on effectively communicating the plan provisions and how to best utilize plan benefits.

An inadequate SPD is a liability. SPDs offered by third-party administrators are often “off-the-shelf” products that are minimally customized for your plan. This approach runs the risk of critical plan provisions being omitted or inadequately described, leaving you open to legal action by plan participants in a claim dispute. And remember, the plan documents provided by administrators do not fulfill ERISA’s SPD requirement unless they are accompanied by a wrap document that includes the information required by ERISA.

Your SPD is more than just a legal requirement. Viewing your SPD simply as a legal document is too often a lost opportunity to educate plan participants about their benefits; instead, give employees a communication that helps them make informed decisions and appreciate the overall value of the plan.

Communication Insight

Transform your SPDs into valuable communication tools by thinking less like a lawyer – and more like your employees. Need help drafting or updating your SPD? Contact us.

Reminder! For those of us who haven’t memorized the ERISA requirements for SPDs:

SPDs for new plans must be provided to participants and beneficiaries within 120 days of that plan’s effective date.

SPDs for existing plans must be provided within 90 days of the date a participant begins to be covered.

If material changes are made to a plan, a Summary of Material Modifications (SMM) must be provided within 210 days after the end of the plan year in which the change was effective.

Every five years, assuming a plan has changed, a new SPD must be provided to all participants (every 10 years if there have been no changes).

There are serious financial penalties for noncompliance.


Are your new hire materials sending the right message?

4 reasons to make a positive first impression

By Danielle Foley
Senior Communication Consultant 

We know that good benefits communication is essential for helping employees make smart decisions during annual enrollment. But what about your new hires? Are the materials they receive an afterthought?

Here are 4 reasons why it’s so important for your new hire materials to make a positive first impression:

  1. New hires are a captive audience. If there’s one time when employees (and their spouses/partners) are laser-focused on benefits, it’s during the hiring and onboarding process. This is your chance to broadcast all the great benefits your company offers and reaffirm their decision to join. It’s also an opportunity to quantify the investment you’re making in them through your total rewards package.
  2. As Mom always says, you only have one opportunity to make a good first impression. Even though they’re already hired, sending enthusiastic new employees—especially millennials—a huge packet of paper forms or multiple PDFs they need to download gives the impression that you haven’t joined the digital age. Chances are you used cutting-edge tactics like social media and digital advertising in your recruiting process, so don’t stop there. Offer new hires a simple, clean microsite with everything they need to know and do about benefits. As an added advantage, a website outside the firewall means spouses can log on, too.
  3. You get the chance to market those perks and programs that don’t require annual enrollment. Again, back to that captive audience thing. If you’ve got great perks, like student loan repayment, volunteer time off, fertility benefits, back-up child care programs, or even pet insurance…this is your chance to advertise them. These benefits provide a huge bang for the buck, especially with younger employees. And—bonus marketing!—they’ll also tell their friends and family about them.
  4. New hires are expensive, so make sure they stay. With the unemployment rate so low, talent is in limited supply. Research shows that new hires make the decision to stay with a company long-term within the first six months on the job. So, engage them right away with new hire materials that impress.

Communication Insight

Great new hire materials don’t have to break the bank. The New Year is the perfect time to repurpose your annual enrollment communication so that your new hires get the same top-notch benefits information as long-timers.

Need help with your new hire materials? Contact us.

HDHP with HSA Plans: Tailoring Communication for a Union Population

By Danielle Foley
Senior Communication Consultant

High deductible health plans (HDHPs) with Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) have been popular for over a decade, but some unions are just beginning to offer them. As we know from rolling out HSA Plans to non-union employees, a good communication plan is the key to getting employees to enroll!

While you can certainly leverage your non-union communication materials, you’ll want to pay special attention to the unique needs of the union environment.

Prep union leadership.
They know the new plan is coming, but can they really explain how it works? Union leaders are key influencers, so make sure they know their stuff. Prepare a leader “cheat sheet” with high-level details about the new plan, examples, and a few FAQs.

Hold on-site meetings.
It’s critical to hold an in-person meeting during each shift. A thorough PowerPoint presentation is essential, but be sure to leave time for lots of questions. A large consumer products company attributes their successful 98% HSA union enrollment in part to the multiple meetings they held at each union location. According to our client, “With a complicated plan like this, the personal touch can’t be underestimated.”

Do the math.
Lay out exactly how the features of the plan work, including deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums, and how the company’s seed money (if any) can help to defray costs. Develop easy visuals to guide employees step by step. Encourage them to think through a “worst case scenario” to determine their HSA contributions. In many companies, employees pay less for the HSA Plan than for other plans, so share how these cost-savings add up over the course of a year.

Talk about January 1.
We find it extremely helpful to paint a detailed and realistic picture of what will happen if an employee needs care on January 1 of the new plan year. This helps employees prepare for a little “sticker shock” at first. For new plan participants used to paying a $10 or $20 prescription drug copayment, this is especially important.

Provide the details, but not too much.
It’s OK to use active enrollment materials (such as an enrollment guide) as a starting point, but consider whittling down the content. Offer ways to get more details for those who want them—additional handouts at the meetings, content on your benefits website, or live call center help.

Provide hard copies of materials.
Many employers have switched to digital enrollment communication, but old-fashioned print copies work best here. A recent client even had enrollment materials drop-shipped to each location and handed out at the meeting, so employees could refer to them real-time. Do your research on who is most often the decision-maker for medical plan choices—the employee or the spouse at home. Consider inviting spouses to face-to-face meetings and be sure benefit materials go home.

Communication Insight

When communicating to a union population, be sure to tailor your messages as well as the delivery vehicles.

Need help meeting your HSA enrollment goals for active or union populations? Contact us. 


When Parental Leave Goes Global

By Danielle Foley
Senior Communication Consultant

Paid parental leave is a hot corporate benefit in the U.S., especially among millennials. But what happens when your company decides to make parental leave global?

Cultural differences and country regulations make communicating this benefit no easy feat. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for and tips for ensuring a smooth rollout.

Demonstrate senior leadership support. While actual benefits may differ by country, it’s critical to show unilateral support for the concept of parental leave at the highest levels of leadership. Suggested launch tactics include a post on the CEO’s blog, town hall meeting, webcast or video.

Be sensitive to cultural differences. Global attitudes about gender and family vary widely. For some men, in particular, there may be a stigma associated with taking parental leave. One client tackled this issue head-on with touching videos about the experiences of two new dads in Brazil and Japan.

Provide a customizable toolkit. One size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to global parental leave. A customizable toolkit with templates for employee emails, PowerPoint presentations, manager tip sheets, and article copy cuts down on the work for local communicators, and also ensures message consistency.

Get managers to walk the talk. Employees may feel reluctant to take leave because of the perceived impact on their careers. Managers should openly communicate their support for the policy, and actively encourage employees to take advantage of the benefit.

Anticipate the questions. Questions about how the global parental leave benefit will coordinate with country-specific maternity and paternity leave are inevitable. It’s smart to develop an exhaustive list of FAQs to help sites anticipate questions beforehand.

Don’t go it alone. Form a combined team with Corporate Communications early on. Brainstorm ways to tap into existing communication channels, or create impactful custom pieces. Identify a local point of contact in each country to serve as communications coordinator and hold regular touch base meetings.

Communication Insight

Successfully rolling out a global parental leave program is a big job. It takes planning, coordination, and commitment at all levels of the organization.

Need help with your plan? Contact us.


5 Tips to Help Employees Navigate Your High Deductible Health Plan

By Tammy Kleinman
Change Communication Consultant & Writer

Congratulations! You survived Annual Enrollment and your employees are participating in the High Deductible Health Plan. But do they know how to use it?

Share these 5 tips with employees to help them navigate the plan throughout the year:

Save Money on Taxes – 3 Ways
One of the best parts of a High Deductible Health Plan is the triple-tax benefit of the health savings account (HSA). You don’t pay taxes on contributions, investment earnings, or withdrawals for eligible health care expenses…even in retirement! That leaves more money in your pocket for things like prescription drugs and vision care. So start saving now for future health care costs.

Comparison Shop
High Deductible Health Plans are all about putting more control in the consumer’s hands. Remember, it’s your responsibility to research your options and find the most cost-effective care. But don’t go by price alone. Quality of care is also important.

To become a better consumer, you can research and interview doctors, and check online reports like ConsumerHealthChoices.org and Healthgrades.com.

Preventive Care Is a No-Brainer
Most High Deductible Health Plans cover preventive services at 100%, with no deductible. It just makes sense to schedule regular preventive health screenings and primary care visits—so you don’t incur higher costs down the road for untreated illnesses.

Invest the Balance
Most HSAs offer an investment option. Be sure to advantage of this extra way to help your money grow, tax-free, until you’re ready to spend it on health care expenses.

Get the Big Stuff Out of the Way Early
If you know you’re going to need surgery or a major procedure, schedule it early in the year. This way, if you need care later in the year, you’ll already have met the deductible, and the plan will start paying benefits sooner.

Communication Insight 

High Deductible Health Plans can be confusing to navigate—even for a seasoned health care consumer. Educating your employees about their benefits requires a deep understanding of your company’s offerings, a solid communication plan, and a year-round commitment.

Need help with your plan? Contact us.