December 18, 2017
Article of the Week
Seven Ways to Diffuse Holiday Stress
This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be the most stressful. The holidays often bring more personal and professional obligations, but that doesn’t mean your workload goes away. More than half of U.S. workers say they are happier on the job during the holidays, but 35% admit they’re more stressed this time of year, according to a new survey from staffing firm Accountemps.
The holidays are a microcosm of how stress evolves, says Stephanie Marston, coauthor of Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. “The holidays bring things into focus in an acute way,” she says. “We are trying to make the season joyful and perfect, but our work stresses may be greater than they were previously. We probably feeling like the world around us is spinning out of control, and it’s hard to not feel some sense of impending doom.”
Balancing holiday events and work obligations was ranked as the most stressful part of the holiday season, according to the Accountemps survey. Instead of feeling the frenzy, try these seven ways to cope.
1. EMBRACE THE SEASON
It’s tempting to grit your teeth and bear it, but you can also use the season as a time to grow, learn, and evolve, says Marston. Instead of looking forward to getting back to normal after the holidays, consider the faster pace a new normal, taking the time to identify and reflect on your stress trigger point.
“The holidays bring more of everything, good and bad,” says Marston. “Look at it as an opportunity to do things differently, and then carry that into the New Year.”
2. CREATE SEPARATION
Focusing on a long personal to-do list, such as shopping, wrapping gifts, attending parties, and hosting events during work hours can lead to anxiety and hurt productivity, says Michael Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps. Instead, set boundaries around your time.
“If you want to check off items from your personal to-do list during the workday, use your lunch break to grocery shop or run errands,” he says. “Or use vacation days to give yourself some extra time for personal errands. It’s also a good idea to take time off for yourself and recharge before the New Year.”
Before leaving work, write down your top priorities to accomplish the next day, suggests Steinitz. “Keep work and personal to-do’s separate, which will help you manage projects, improve productivity, and reduce stress during the holidays,” he says.
3. BE VOCAL
Meet with your manager to discuss possible solutions to alleviate work pressure. For example, adjust deadlines, delegate assignments to others, or bring in temporary help, suggests Steinitz.
Sometimes just voicing concerns can alleviate stress, adds Marston. “Identify how you need to adjust work plans to be better aligned with your team and the world around you,” she says.
4. MAINTAIN REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
During the holidays it’s easy to get caught in a tug-of-war between what we want things to be and what they are, and what we want and what we are able to do, says Marston.
“Feelings and expectations of Norman Rockwell bliss are heightened during the holidays, and stress is natural even for most balanced among us,” she says. “Get your priorities straight and have realistic expectations.”
One way to do this is to determine what can wait. “Because of year-end reviews we often spend the end of year stressing to wrap up back-burner projects, knowing full well something’s going to give,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a high-level impact project or something that’s second tier?’ Think about putting off what you can do tomorrow. Some things can be delayed.”
5. SCHEDULE DOWN TIME
It sounds counterintuitive when there’s a lot on your list, but schedule time to decompress and debrief. Remind yourself by setting your phone for an alert twice a day: late morning and late afternoon.
“Small breaks throughout the day help maintain sanity,” says Marston. Take a walk, or listen to music. Telecommute one day or two. Or simply close your office door and find quiet time. Marston suggests taking a deep breath to the count of three, three times in a row, with three rounds.
“During the third round, double the length of your exhalation,” she says. “This activates the physical relax response.”
6. EXPRESS APPRECIATION
Gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates stress, and produces a pleasure sensation, according to research published in the medical journal Cerebral Cortex.
Expressing appreciation for the little things will give you higher satisfaction with your job and coworkers, says Marston. Find ways to praise your team, say “thank you,” and be of service to others.
In addition, reframe thoughts that make you feel irritated, says Marston. “Give people the benefit of the doubt, and accept that we’re all more stressed than usual,” she says. “Instead of judging, which is so easy for us to do, focus on learning new ways to relate with them. By being more curious you’ll persist in face of setbacks.”
7. SAY “NO”
It can be easy to say “yes” when you want to say “no,” but during the holidays it’s more important than ever to break this habit.
“Many of us act like ‘no’ is a four letter word,” says Marston. “We say ‘yes’ because we feel guilty or concerned with what the other person will think and we don’t want to disappoint. But who do we disappoint over and over again? Ourselves.”
People who successfully reduce their stress levels say “no” all the time. “View the decision that saying ‘no’ is equally important as saying ‘yes,'” says Marston. “Saying ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’ makes us resentful. Friends and colleague will understand if you can’t participate.”
If it’s not possible to say “no,” try and remove something else from your agenda to make up for lost time. “Saying ‘no’ is the highest form of self-care and self-preservation,” says Marston. “It’s important to be protective of your time and energy, especially during the holidays.”
December 11, 2017
Article of the Week
5 Effective Ways to Upgrade Your Anti-Harassment Policy
Good policies—including your anti-harassment policy—can help shape the workplace culture. Here are five general recommendations for HR professionals to consider as they revisit their organizations' existing anti-harassment policies.
Don't Be Limited to Sexual Harassment
Every anti-harassment policy should cover sexual harassment. But we cannot forget that other kinds of harassment are equally unlawful and must be addressed, too.
Simply stated, harassment based on any protected status is prohibited. This would include race, ethnicity and religion.
Imagine the question you'll be asked at a deposition in a lawsuit from one of your employees if your policy addresses sexual harassment but not race: "Why do you think sexual harassment is worse than racial harassment?" There's no good answer.
Avoid the question by making sure your policy is not limited to sexual harassment.
Avoid Legal Definitions
All of us have seen policies that quote regulations published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The legal definition is fine for lawyers but, without more context, provides inadequate notice to employees.
You must include real-life examples of unacceptable conduct in your policy, examples that will resonate in your organization's culture.
Sometimes, employers struggle with how much detail to provide. I get it. You don't want to make individuals uncomfortable with a policy that was designed to make the working environment more comfortable.
Why not make this concern explicit in the policy? State that your intent is not to make anyone uncomfortable but instead is to make clear what is unacceptable so that employees have a comfortable working environment.
Even with this disclaimer, please be thoughtful on how you describe prohibited conducted. For example, every policy should include the phrase "hate words." But I would never use the actual words.
However, you can give examples without spelling them out. For example, you might say: "Use of hate words, such as the 'n-word.' "
Don't Focus On What Is Prohibited
In order for harassment to be unlawful under federal law, it must be, among other factors, severe or pervasive. The more severe it is, the less pervasive it need be. The converse is true.
However, employers do not want to wait until conduct is unlawful before prohibiting (or responding to) it. The goal is to prevent and remedy harassing conduct before it rises to the level of illegality.
Therefore, it is recommended that, within a policy, employers lead off the examples of prohibited conduct with something like: "The following behaviors are unacceptable and therefore prohibited, even if not unlawful in and of themselves."
The law sets a minimum. You want to make clear that you will not tolerate unacceptable conduct, even if it is not unlawful.
On a related note, it is dangerous to start your list of prohibited conduct with something like: "Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to ... " This is problematic for multiple reasons.
First, the conduct at issue may not be harassment as a matter of law. Mocking a disabled employee's walk is harassing behavior based on disability. But, at least under federal law, if there is nothing more, it is probably not enough in and of itself to create a hostile work environment.
Second, if your prohibitions are framed in terms of legal wrongs, your corrective actions may need to be, too. And here you risk defamation claims.
That is, the conduct may not be severe or pervasive enough to violate federal law. But it may be bad enough to meet your judgment as to what is unacceptable, and therefore, it may be prohibited. Why apply a standard to conduct you may not be able to prove?
Drill Down On Sexual Harassment
Of course, you will want to include quid pro quo harassment and give an example of what that means—for example, requiring an employee to submit to sexual advances as a condition of a promotion.
But you also will want to include examples of conduct that does not constitute quid pro quo harassment that may nonetheless give rise to a hostile work environment. Common examples include sexual bantering, sexual "jokes" and inappropriate touching.
However, do not limit your examples to the strictly sexual. In particular, do not forget to include examples that involve pregnancy as well as gender-biased statements, such as stereotypes about women or men.
It is not just comments about someone's sexual desirability that may give rise to a hostile work environment. Comments about someone's perceived lack of attractiveness can give rise to a hostile work environment. Sexual objectification—favorably or negatively—is unacceptable.
Consider the Scope of the Prohibitions
It is helpful to make it clear how the prohibitions apply. Here are a few suggestions:
- First, make clear that the prohibitions apply to employees and nonemployees alike. Your employees cannot subject nonemployees with whom they work to prohibited conduct, and they should use the complaint procedure if a nonemployee with whom they work engages in such conduct.
- Second, be careful not to suggest that the policy applies only in the workplace. At a very minimum, make clear that the policy applies to company-sponsored social events.
The policy should make explicit that the prohibitions apply not only to the spoken or written word but also to e-mail, text messages and social media posts. I have observed a steady rise in the number of cases of harassment involving text messages and social media, so employees should be put on notice.
Of course, some social media may be strictly private. That is rare but possible. Consider language to the following effect: The harassment policy applies to social media posts, tweets, etc., that are about or may be seen by employees, customers, etc.
Yes, the employee's Facebook account may be configured as private. But if co-workers are friends and see the posts, the posts are fair game for corrective action.
December 4, 2017
Article of the Week
Five Ways To Give (And Get) Good Customer Service This Holiday Season
Stories of poor customer service are legendary; especially at this time of year. It seems every company and every customer has a tale of woe. There’s the clerk who doesn’t know/doesn’t care; the voice mail system with endless hoops to jump through to get to a human being (if you even can); the surly fast food attendant; part-timers who may not be trained.
For today’s entrepreneur the playing field for holiday commerce has changed. Requirements around the holidays are heaviest. Despite your best intentions, statistically it’s harder to find the best people in a clutch situation, and it may be tempting to lower your standards. But this may be a costly decision as mistakes of carelessness can create direct and indirect costs (such as a reputational hit) that affects your business for years.
So as a committed and responsible business, what can you do? With the help of customer service expert Nancy Friedman, here are some ways to give (and get) the service you’d like to receive:
- Give meaningful feedback. As an employer, take the time to train your employees with care for the kind of situations they are likely to see. Apps such as the program I wrote about in my last post, Loop2U, allow employers to give meaningful feedback to their employees in real time. “That last situation rated you a 4. With just this slight adjustment, I’m betting the next will give you a 5,” on a smartphone device can be much better input than scolding your employee at the end of the day or simply shaking your head at the end of the week. And as a consumer, yourself, don’t be shocked or angry at less than great service during the holiday season, Friedman suggests. You’ll just make it worse. Be realistic and during the hectic holiday season, expect somewhat lower standards of customer service. You may be dealing with a new hire who’s had little training and perhaps no experience. Your patience and encouragement could help them progress.
- Teach employees to influence the experience. If an employee puts out a positive vibe and a friendly greeting, customers are more likely to mirror the mood. But this will also work in reverse, and if a customer’s negative attitude is mirrored by the salesperson, the situation is likely to continue downhill. Friedman notes she has actually influenced the customer service she gets by knowing this principle. When she was confronted by a harassed and upset hostess in Las Vegas, she said simply, “I’m good! I’m getting a cheery hostess who’s going to take good care of us.” The hostess took a deep breath and smiled. She may have just finished an encounter with the customer from Hades, but she was prepared to provide good service now.
- Plan how you will win your customers over.Teach your employees to exert some effort in a season of stress and reward them for doing so to ensure a pleasant buying experience.
- Take a second try. Sometimes the last few experiences the other person had may have been brutal. Teach your team to do whatever they can to establish a friendly atmosphere. Smile and make the effort to maintain a good mood. Take control of the situation. By the end of the transaction, you’ll probably be having a far more positive relationship with an unruly customer. Smiles are contagious.
- Accept the occasional situations where nothing works. Teach employees to escalate the hardest situations to someone specialized in doing all that they can. But don’t take it personally and don’t let your employees take it personally either. A nightmare customer is prone to be just as abrasive to the vendor who follows you as he or she has been to the person before. But if you want to enhance the majority of your customer service experiences, you can, and the benefits to your business (and your employees) is well worth it.
As an entrepreneur, vow to take more responsibility for your customers’ experience this year than you did in the season before. Radiate your own good mood and attitude and challenge your employees to do so as well. The results these efforts bring you will be well worth the additional effort and focus they take.
November 20, 2017
Article of the Week
Six Ways To Use The Holiday Season To Your Advantage
Urban legend has it that corporate budgets for the year have already been expended and the hiring process all but stops in December. Not so! While you may be tempted, do not put your job hunt on ice. Even in those companies where hiring is temporarily frozen, networking and interviewing continues unabated in order to lay the groundwork for a rush of job offers going out when the new budget year arrives in January.
Remember that about 80 percent of all new hires are the result of someone knowing someone else through personal networking. And because there are so many parties, gathering and events of all kinds in December, this is the high season for networking your way into a new job.
Maybe you aren’t yet comfortable in a room of 200 strangers. Or alternatively, maybe you feel out of place in a smaller room full of people, because you can’t blend into the crowd and be inconspicuous. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable networking, because you don’t know what to say or how to strike up a conversation. Perhaps you've yet to find your confident job-hunting voice.
Here are six tips to help you break the ice and make any event into the “right context” to build and strengthen your relationships:
1. Be curious, and show an interest in others. If you're at a business forum, trade show, presentation or other public- or industry-related event, you can always begin with something like, “Hi, great to see/meet you. What brings you here?” Follow up with some general questions about another person’s professional background or organization, and listen carefully for hooks you can use to follow up in a way to keep things going.
Possible lines you can use:
- “Yes, I’ve heard of your organization and your work in the area of such-and-such. Can you tell me more about that?”
- “I’m interested in today’s speaker because ______. How about you?”
In short, ask interesting questions that demonstrate you know something but want to know more.
2. Be an involved and active listener. Give your full attention to the person with whom you're speaking. People can tell when you're surveying the room and looking for someone else you’d rather be with. It's just plain rude if your eyes wander all over the room while talking with someone. It makes the person who is speaking to you feel unimportant.
When you really aren’t interested in what someone is saying to you, find an appropriate moment to politely excuse yourself and then continue circulating.
3. Pick out a loner and engage. You probably don’t enjoy wandering aimlessly through a room full of people with no one to talk to. Neither does anyone else. Look around, and see who is on the periphery. When you approach that person with a friendly smile, handshake and greeting, he or she will respond in kind. Look for things you might have in common, and you’ll be surprised where that interaction might lead.
4. Be judicious about handing out your business card. Always come to a networking event with business cards in your pocket., but don’t be “that guy” who just goes person-to-person shoving his card in everyone’s hands before moving on. All too common is the experience of coming home from such an event, looking through a pile of cards and not remembering anything about the peope who gave them. Those cards head straight for the proverbial circular file. And don’t be so presumptuous as to give people two or three of your cards expecting them to want to pass them on further on your behalf.
Instead, aim to talk with just a handful of people at any event, and as you are concluding your interaction, ask if you might continue the conversation at another time. When you get a positive response, ask for their card so you’ll be able to call in a few days and set it up. They will likely ask you for yours as well, and then you can give it to a willing receiver.
5. Stay sober! Alcohol flows freely at holiday parties and events. Remember that after a couple drinks, you will loose your edge and are likely to say things that you will later regret.
It is imperative that you keep your mind focused and never leave a negative impressionthough inappropriate acts or words. If you are asked why you aren’t drinking, a simple deflection is to respond by saying you're are a designated driver for someone else.
6. Know when it's time to move on. Even when you hit it off well with a new acquaintance, remember that both you and that person came to the event to meet multiple people. Don’t risk being thought of as the person who clings and never lets go! Instead, ask if you might follow up with a phone call and another one-on-one meeting when neither of you will be distracted.
Happy holidays – and happy hunting!
November 13, 2017
Article of the Week:
The Art Of Persuasion: Tips For Small Business Owners
People often associate clever copywriting and persuasion techniques with large corporations that can afford to launch television commercials, put full-page ads in magazines and publish slick websites. The fact is, however, small businesses need these skills at least as much. Everything large advertising agencies can do, you can do on a smaller scale. Let's look at some of the ways you can borrow high-level sales, persuasion and copywriting strategies from the pros and help you connect more effectively with your own customers.
If you have a small business, whether it's a storefront such as retail store or restaurant, a service-based business such as a medical practice or salon, or a web-based business such as an e-commerce site, you need to reach customers and prospects in a way that really speaks to them.
It's especially important for businesses with limited budgets to learn how to communicate effectively and persuasively. Since you can't afford to spend huge amounts of money on advertising, everything you do has to really count. I am in the SMS or text-message-marketing industry, and many of my clients are small and mid-sized businesses. Text marketing is just one example of a platform where what you say and how you say it is of the utmost importance. Other examples include email marketing, PPC ads, blogs and on signage, billboards and when setting up booths at trade shows and other business events. In all of these cases, it's essential to connect as directly as possible with your target audience. Let's look at some of the specific areas where you can use your messaging to your advantage.
Address Your Customer's Needs
While this may seem an obvious point, it's easy to get caught up in tooting your own horn and talking about facts and features that aren't really your customers' main concern. You only have a limited amount of time to hold people's attention. so you don't want to waste any of it. For example, if you're sending an email where the main goal is to get people to click on a link to your website, don't spend several paragraphs talking about the history of your business.
Before creating any type of ad, promotion or communication, identify your main purpose. Is it to get people into your store, on your website, leave you with their email address or mobile number or to make an appointment? Focus on how your product or service can solve a specific problem or provide customers with a specific benefit. If they want more information about you or your products, they can find it on your website or by asking you.
Write Attention-Grabbing Headlines And Subject Lines
Headlines are the very first thing people read when they see articles, blog posts or any type of content. They also apply to offline promotional tools such as print ads, signs and posters. Subject lines in emails, text messages and chat messages play a similar role. In all of these cases, grab the reader or recipient's attention right away so you don't lose him or her. Using action verbs in your headlines and subject lines is a good way to get your readers to pay attention.
Sometimes a simple and factual approach is best, such as "Save 25% on all items this weekend only!" Another approach is to ask a provocative question such as, "When was your last eye/dental exam?" or "Why do so many doctors recommend this popular food for weight loss?" Obviously, the specific approach depends on your goal and the type of business you have. The point is, focus on an introduction that gets their attention.
Use Visuals Along With Text
Today, many types of marketing strategies rely on visuals at least as much as text. In some cases, you can increase the effectiveness of a strong header as discussed above with a compelling image. In other contexts, such as certain types of signs, billboards or ads, the image is often the main attraction. Many small businesses use fairly generic images. Why not try something more creative? This actually applies to brick and mortar businesses in particular as it's now fairly easy to get quality graphics for websites and social media. Using quality photos or images that are amusing, tantalizing, appetizing, glamorous or whatever effect works best for your business is another type of persuasion.
Make Your Content Readable And Scannable
As people's attention spans get shorter, it's increasingly important to make your content easy to read. This applies to web copy, sales letters and anything that people skim. As this is the case, avoid very long paragraphs. This will discourage many people from reading your content at all. Use headers and sub-headers rather than one long, unbroken section. Break your content up with lists and bullet points. This makes it easier for readers to scan down the page. For websites and sales letters, use images or videos in between written content.
Persuasion is really a fundamental part of any type of marketing or advertising. It requires you to put yourself in your customers' shoes and ask yourself what they care about most. It also takes some creativity. Think of ways to connect with people that differentiates you from the competition. Then test different methods and find out which ones yield the best results.
November 6, 2017
Article of the Week:
10 Brilliant Ways Non-Retail Businesses Can Celebrate Small Business Saturday
Small Biz Saturday isn’t just for retail businesses. Even service providers and other types of small businesses can get in on the fun. Small Biz Saturday is on November 25 this year and it’s one day where shoppers are looking to spend their money at companies like yours, specifically.
Last year, consumers spent about $15.4 billion on Small Business Saturday at independent retail stores and restaurants. While it’s almost assumed Small Biz Saturday is enjoyed only by small stores and shops, plenty of other types of businesses can capitalize on this special event. Because of the timing of Small Business Saturday, now it’s a great time for businesses to reach out to customers and complete other important tasks, even for those businesses that aren’t main street shops.
Here are 10 ways non-retail small businesses can celebrate Small Business Saturday:
Launch an Email Campaign
Small Business Saturday is a great time for small businesses to communicate with customers, either through planned email campaigns or personalized emails to each client. Even if your business is more service oriented, it can be a good time to remind customers about your offerings while they have small businesses on the brain.
Support Other Small Businesses on Social Media
You can do some similar positioning on social media. Post on your Facebook page or other accounts about small businesses in your area or local Small Business Saturday events. This can appeal to community-minded consumers and potentially increase your reach on those platforms.
Send Out Holiday Cards
Since Small Business Saturday is part of the official start of the holiday shopping season, it’s a perfect time to get some of your holiday tasks accomplished. Sending out handwritten or personalized cards to your clients or best customers can be a great way to differentiate your business and keep your services top of mind.
Partner with Other Small Businesses
Even if your business doesn’t have a retail store, you can still potentially benefit from the increase in retail traffic on Small Business Saturday by partnering with stores and restaurants in your community. Ask if you can put up signs at their locations or offer coupons for your services to people who shop at those stores.
Mingle in the Community
Especially for businesses in small towns or cities with active downtown communities, simply being a part of the Small Business Saturday festivities can be a great way to support your own business. Go out to shops and restaurants and talk to other shoppers and business owners, making sure you have plenty of business cards and a great elevator pitch prepared.
Support Local Events
Many communities also hold organized events for Small Business Saturday. So your business could potentially benefit from sponsoring those events, setting up a booth or otherwise participating. Even if you can’t offer something for customers to actually purchase on that day, you can show an active interest in the community and network with potential future customers.
Host an Open House
If your business has a physical location that just isn’t a retail store or restaurant, consider hosting an open house where you invite people in for refreshments or entertainment, especially if your business is located in a high traffic area. Simply getting people through the door can help you reach more potential customers and share what your business is all about.
Offer B2B Promotions
For B2B businesses, consider offering some kind of special product or service to retail stores and restaurants that will be busy on Small Business Saturday. Maybe you can offer a special rate on printed materials for marketing or a discounted month of service for bookkeeping clients. Showing that you support small businesses can help you keep those clients happy and potentially help you with some word of mouth marketing.
Prepare for Disasters
The recent hurricanes likely have a lot of small businesses thinking about their own disaster plans. For businesses that don’t experience a spike in business during the holiday season, this time of year can be right time to create some of those plans, if you haven’t already.
Get Organized for Tax Season
Likewise, the start of the holiday season means the new year is right around the corner. And that means businesses should be preparing for tax time. So if you don’t have a holiday rush to worry about, take this time to organize all your important documents so you won’t have to rush during the first few months of the year.
October 30, 2017
Article of the Week:
Open Enrollment Begins This Week. What's Different In 2018?
Companies are preparing for health insurance open enrollment by reviewing plans and choosing coverage for their employees. It pays to review options, even if you're happy with your current coverage. A wrong decision could cost you thousands of extra dollars in the coming year. Here are some factors to weigh, depending on where you get your coverage:
Premiums for employer-sponsored coverage rose just 3% this year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, much less than the double-digit increases common on the individual market. That said, in recent years workers have been asked to shoulder a larger portion of their medical costs in the form of high deductibles, where your spending has to reach a certain threshold before insurance kicks in. The average deductible for people with employer-provided health coverage rose from $303 to $1,505 between 2006 and 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — which hurts your wallet, especially if your raises aren't keeping pace.
High-deductible health plans usually have lower monthly premiums than more comprehensive coverage, so they can be a good option for people who don’t go to the doctor a lot. These plans are typically paired with health savings accounts, where you can sock away pre-tax dollars to pay your medical bills now or in the future (funds in them don’t expire like they do in flexible spending accounts). One way to compare a high deductible and a more comprehensive plan is to weigh worst-case scenarios under each: add the plans’ annual out-of-pocket maximum to the yearly premium to find out the most you’d have to pay given a serious diagnosis or accident, assuming you stay inside your plan’s network of doctors.
Affordable Care Act
Open enrollment for 2018 coverage in the roughly 39 states that use healthcare.gov runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15—six weeks shorter than in prior years. Some states that run their own exchanges have extended the deadline for their own marketplace. For example, in New York, the deadline to enroll for 2018 coverage remains Jan. 31.
Insurers faced considerable uncertainty pricing their 2018 products, given the efforts in Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare. While it remains on the books, the Trump administration has not supported the law like the Obama administration did. Charles Gaba, who runs ACASignups.net, estimates the national average premium increase from 2017 to 2018 to be around 34%, with 20% of that rise attributed to Republican efforts to undermine the law, according to rates filed so far.
The roughly 85% of consumers who receive premium subsidies, money given from the federal government directly to insurers to offset individuals' costs, won’t bear the full brunt of these rate increases. Even so, “you could really get nailed if you don’t shop around,” says Sabrina Corlette, research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. That’s because the subsidies change from year to year based on market forces, and you might need to switch plans to take full advantage.
If you do nothing and allow yourself to be automatically re-enrolled in your current plan for 2018, you could receive a rude surprise when your premiums increase and it’s too late for you to do anything about it. What’s more, if your current carrier is discontinuing your plan for 2018, you could get automatically redirected into a plan you don’t like as much. Instead, go to healthcare.gov or your state marketplace and update your personal information, including your estimated income and your covered family members. This will help re-determine your eligibility for premium subsidies and provide you with new estimates of how much your 2018 coverage choices will cost, after subsidies. You can also use the site to make sure your doctors participate in the plans you’re considering, and to make sure your drugs are covered.
There’s been confusion about whether the Internal Revenue Service will continue to enforce the individual mandate, the requirement that most people sign up for coverage. Corlette says all signs indicate that it’s business as usual and people will have to pay a penalty at tax time if they don't enroll and don’t qualify for an exemption.
Medicare open enrollment runs each year from Oct. 15 through Dec. 7. During this time, beneficiaries can pick a new Medicare Part D drug plan, a new Medicare Advantage plan, or switch from original Medicare (coverage managed by the federal government) into a Medicare Advantage plan (coverage managed by private health plans that contract with Medicare) or vice versa.
Medicare supplement plans, also known as Medigap plans, operate under different rules and are not included in open enrollment.
Medicare Advantage plans tend to offer certain benefits that original Medicare doesn’t. For example, an increasing number are offering coverage for a number of meals after the beneficiary leaves the hospital, transportation to doctor’s appointments, and over-the-counter drug benefits, says Joe DeLuca, director of sales, eHealthMedicare.com, an online broker. The trade-off is that many Medicare Advantage plans come with a relatively limited choice of doctors and hospitals. People on original Medicare, by contrast, can visit any doctor anywhere in the country who accepts Medicare.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimates that the average monthly Medicare Advantage premium for 2018 will be $30, down nearly $2 from last year. The agency estimates that the average Part D premium will be $33.50 per month, a decrease of approximately $1.20 from last year. But these Part D estimates don’t tell the whole story, says Kev Coleman, head of research and data at HealthPocket: the government calculation focuses on the average basic premium and excludes more comprehensive plans. Including all plans, the national average Part D premium will be $52.36, according to HealthPocket’s analysis.
By now, you should have received a mailing from your insurers telling you of any changes on the horizon for 2018 in terms of premium prices, participating doctors, or covered drugs (known as drugs “on formulary.”) Pay attention to these. If a drug you rely on is now covered at a lower level than before, then you could be on the hook for more out-of-pocket costs. The Plan Finder tool at Medicare.gov allows you to search for plans in your zip code. Input your drugs and the tool will estimate what your total annual costs would be with each plan, including premiums, deductibles and drug copays.
Drug prices under Part D can vary greatly even within the same zip code, according to a recent study by The Senior Citizens League. For example, a monthly supply of diabetes drug Lantus Solostar ranges from a high of $682 from the mail-order pharmacy of one plan to a low of $77.75 from the network retail pharmacies of another plan.