beach-istockThe typical argument in favor of the United States’ unique system of health care often centers on the freedom consumers have to choose the benefits that best meet their needs.

In reality, however, few Americans are truly health care shoppers. Most get insurance through their employer, and even if the employer offers an array of options, many employees don’t understand the benefits they can choose from.

A recent poll by Chicago-based employee communication software company Jellyvision found that 48 percent of U.S. workers say that making choices about health insurance is “very stressful.” Forty-one percent say enrolling in their employer’s health plan is very confusing.

Roughly half of the 2,000 benefit-eligible employees surveyed say they don’t know what the out-of-pocket maximum is for their health plan. A similar percentage couldn’t say what their employer contribution to the plan was.

The key for employers is the 56 percent who say they would appreciate help from the company in making health plan decisions. That figure, argues HR Dive, represents a major opportunity for employers to help workers out. The best way to help them through a process they find convoluted, it adds, is by using simple language to explain the steps and options.

“Employers are seeing success with the right combination of accurate, clear information and tools to explain the perks in clean, clear language,” writes HR Dive’s Tom Starner.

While past surveys have shown that American workers strongly consider benefits when choosing a job, there is an equal amount of evidence that shows they don’t have a strong grasp of the benefits their employers offer them, including health insurance and retirement.

Much of the ignorance is because of the fact that for generations, many employers have offered comprehensive insurance that covered the great majority of workers’ health care costs. Relatively few workers with employer-based insurance had to make decisions about costs; those were made by the employer and remained largely hidden from the average employee.

After nearly two decades of rapidly rising health costs, however, many employers are moving toward high-deductible health plans or consumer-driven health plans. More are also offering a greater array of plans for workers to pick from.

In the long term, advocates hope, employees will become more sophisticated health care shoppers and make choices that prod the health care system into competing for consumers in a way that is more in line with traditional market economics. But the country still has a ways to go.

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