Healthcare Changes and Employee Morale in 2013

 This is the fifth part of our series of posts on the 6 hot themes that will be affecting HR in 2013. Here we tackle the impact on your organization of new changes in healthcare that are already looming large.

The first paychecks of 2013 have gone out over the past few days—or they will be delivered at the end of the month. I got mine today, and I have to admit it gave me pause, as I tried to work out the reasons for the changes I saw.

With recent tax and healthcare legislation in the U.S, chances are you are fielding a lot of questions and more than a little drama this week over January paychecks and benefits summaries. Some changes are due to income and social security taxes, but many are also due to deadlines taking effect in the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare).  Those healthcare changes are just beginning. They will continue to roll out over the next few years—rippling into 2016. That means the questions and concerns about healthcare and spending accounts are really just beginning.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Affordable Care Act. There are far better blogs than ours that can give you the low down on those changes and how to prepare for them.

But in all of the activity around these changes, it is important for us to understand how the laws might affect employees and their relationship with their employers. That is the legacy of healthcare changes for HR, because once the dust settles and everyone is in compliance, we’re left to minimize the negative fallout in morale and engagement levels.

To that end, here are a few pieces of advice for dealing with the shift.  (And although our friends outside the U.S. may not be facing quite the same upheaval, perhaps some of this advice will apply to them when they address similar transitions.)

Set Aside Personal Feelings:
The Affordable Care Act is a very divisive issue. I have friends who virtually froth at the mouth when it is raised in polite conversation. It is important, when discussing it with employees, to keep a discussion of benefits from becoming a free-for-all on political views that can lead to hard feelings. Encourage your colleagues and employees to stick to the facts and leave strong opinions at the door.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate:
This new legislation carries with it a great deal of built-in provision for communications via the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) and other periodic plan communications. Supplement those official communications with clear, plain-spoken information for your employees on how and when changes will affect them and your company—and ways in which it will not affect them

Educate and Demystify: 
One way to head off morale issues around change is to educate people about it. For the many employees who hold strong negative opinions about the Affordable Care Act, it might help to explain some of the potential upside of the legislation. For example:

    • Did you know that the new Act will now insure 33 million people who previously had no health insurance (PDF)?
    • Also, insurance companies are no longer allowed to discriminated based on preexisting conditions
    • The law also requires insurers to spend between 80 and 85 percent of every premium dollar on medical care (as opposed to administration, advertising, etc).


It might also be worth your time to peruse this very lucid Cliff Notes Version of the Affordable Health Care Act, written by Carolyn McClanahan for Forbes, so that your department has some facts on the new changes that can balance the scales of woe and negativity that surround these changes.

Calm Fears:
Fear is a normal reaction to change. And that fear may run the gamut from anxiety about getting paperwork right, to outright hostility and anger against the need for change and the agents who must implement it. Even employees who were highly supportive of the new legislation will need time to work out how it affects them. Those who were against the law all along might transfer their negative feelings about it onto you and your organization. Arm yourself and your staff with information and options to help calm outbursts of fear if they arise. Be prepared for emotions to be raw.

Redirect Emotions:
Any communication with employees represents an opportunity to remind them of your company values and their value, as employees and people, to your organization. Times of change and emotional upheaval—particularly around things like health and money—are pressure points where emotions can be reset. This means that negative emotions about things that have nothing to do with your company can still poison relationships with your employees. But this is also an opportunity to reinforce positive emotions—to remind employees of their importance to the company, to show appreciation for their contribution, and to establish the company as their ally and champion in navigating the difficult waters of change. It is important to have a plan for this upheaval and to carefully monitor these shifting relationships. Do not leave this to chance!

Gather Ye Data While Ye May:
This is a longer term objective, but it is important not to get so caught up in getting through the changes in 2013 that you miss the opportunity to learn. It is wise, and in some cases necessary, to gather data on your transition and your healthcare plan management and to develop methods for analyzing that data. Using this data with wellness programs will help you to achieve long term goals that can help you better meet the needs of your workforce and keep cost trends below benchmark or industry/regional averages.

The Affordable Healthcare Act may offer us a bit of an adjustment in 2013, but a little preparation and a little more patience will help you weather the storm.

More in this series of posts:

#1: How Crowdsourcing Will Affect HR in 2013
#2: Measuring & Managing Culture with Big Data
#3: Keeping HR From Getting Lost in the Cloud
#4: HR Hits the Road – The Impact of Mobile Networking in 2013

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