The October 1 deadline for employers to notify workers of health-care coverage options came and went with much hoopla and a heated government shutdown. But business owners and operators may still be struggling to help their employees understand what changes to expect; in fact, they may not even be aware of all the low-cost supplements available to them.

Seven out of 10 employers had yet to communicate changes in benefits to employees as of August, according to the third annual WorkForces Report from Aflac, a supplemental insurance provider. The report’s Open Enrollment Survey also found that 60 percent of employees had not begun to educate themselves about changes at that time.

“There is a tremendous lack of desire of your average employee and employer to really find out the details of what’s covered in health-care reform,” says Audrey Boone Tillman, executive vice president of Aflac. “This is a year where people don’t need to just know the basics; they really need to do their homework.”

Small- to mid-scale quick serves may have the most homework to do. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires a business with more than 50 full-time employees to play or pay—either provide qualifying, affordable coverage, or be subject to fees.

To offer coverage without taking a huge hit to profits, some employers may be forced to drop benefits that cover employees’ spouses or pick plans with more constraints, Tillman says. But she says operators may not be exploring all of their low-cost options, which can help keep employees satisfied.

Supplemental insurance or voluntary policies can close employer-paid coverage gaps with little to no cost for companies. The caveat with these plans, though, is to ensure workers aren’t doubling up on benefits. Aflac’s WorkForce Report found that 54 percent of workers waste up to $750 because of mistakes made during open enrollment periods, perhaps a result of lack of understanding.

Tillman also suggests employers look at utilization rates of what they offer and trim down options that aren’t as popular to redirect funds. Small changes, like adding wellness programs with incentives for health-conscious behaviors, may even cut overall health-care expenditure.

Offering flu shots is another example Tillman says can be a convenient benefit to employees that “isn’t going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“I think that kind of creative thought that’s mindful of just how precious benefits are, that’s often lacking,” she says.

Most of all, employers should be turning to their insurance providers to prepare for 2014 and ACA’s full enactment in 2015, Tillman says.

“This year more than any, it’s a good idea to have your providers [or] your brokers come in to talk to you and your employees,” she says, adding that many insurance agents offer complimentary in-person services.

“Our study confirmed that even this year, benefits are still a major retention tool—and a retention tool I would also consider a recruitment tool,” Tillman says. “Benefits are still very important to employees.”

By Tamara Omazic

Employee Management, Legal, News