Would your employees and plan participants be able to access their employee benefits in the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey? This article suggests areas that organizations should plan for to help ensure benefits will be available for workers if disaster strikes.
When many organizations think of disaster planning, they simply think about what they need to do to protect and recover electronic data. While that is a very important consideration, it is not the only concern from an employee benefits perspective when a large-scale disaster strikes. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, forest fires, ice storms and volcanic eruptions can result in widespread evacuations, work cessation and other disruptions that can significantly impact employees. For that reason, employers and benefit plans also should spend time considering and planning for disasters in a way that focuses on employees and plan participants. This article offers a look at several key planning areas.
Have a Communication Plan for Before, During and After a Disaster Strikes
Before a Disaster Strikes
Not every disaster comes with warning, but impacted individuals often have several days' notice, such as when hurricanes are forming. In such cases, employers can remind employees about a few key predisaster issues including how the organization will communicate with employees, where to find medical coverage information and how to obtain sufficient doses of medication in case of an extended disruption to daily life.
During a Disaster
Even in normal circumstances, it is important for employees and their families to be able to find contact information for medical plan carriers or third-party administrators (TPAs). Often, employers store such information on their intranet sites, but spouses and children would not have access to an intranet site and, during a widespread disaster, electricity to power up a computer may not be available to anyone. An external site that can be accessed via a smartphone may be a better option. One savvy employer in Louisiana had a smartphone app developed for its employees that contains plan and other contact information. Other employers may wish to have prerecorded messages on well-known organizational phone lines containing plan or benefit advocate contact information.
Many employers have found that group texts are a useful tool to communicate with employees in real time about closures or emergencies. In addition, many employers use social media as a way to keep workers informed and provide a potential method for employees to communicate with one another either through comments or by simply "marking themselves as safe."
In the event of a disaster, the organization as a whole is likely initiating its emergency mode operations. But employer-sponsored health plans, as covered entities under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules, should have their own disaster plans in place, which should include emergency mode operation plans and teams. However, since health plans are unique in that much of their day-to-day operations are conducted by third parties such as insurance carriers and TPAs, they need to incorporate those outside entities into their emergency mode operations to ensure that employees can maintain communication and receive their benefits.
For this reason, it's important when selecting third-party vendors to understand their emergency mode operations plans and capabilities. If an employer and a crucial vendor are in the same disaster zone area, the employer will want assurances that the vendor can continue operations from a different location. For example, one Houston-based benefit advocate center switched all of its call lines over to operations in a sister office in Seattle, Washington during Hurricane Harvey with no apparent downtime to its customers' employees and families.
After the Disaster
In the wake of a...