With the Oct. 1 date that marks the beginning of the open-enrollment season for health insurance plans quickly approaching, Greater Des Moines employers might feel as if they’re preparing for both a sprint and a marathon.

One big takeaway from a health care reform workshop and luncheon hosted yesterday by the Iowa Association of Business and Industry: Businesses need to seek out experts they trust and keep them close at hand to navigate a system that continues to shift under their feet.

About 125 people attended the four-hour event yesterday at the Hy-Vee Conference Center in West Des Moines. The event included an expert panel and a presentation by Iowa Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart.

Gerhart said he expects “a slow glide” into the open-enrollment period, which for the first year under the new health marketplace model has been extended to six months from the usual three-month period. In other words, the new online Iowa Health Insurance Marketplace probably won’t be overwhelmed with demand the first days or weeks, he said.

Gerhart outlined a number of resources that will be available to help both individuals and small businesses access information, including 20 town hall events that will be held across the state in the next several months. Afterward, he said his division plans to use some federal funding for a media campaign to help get the word out about the new online marketplace that the state will operate in partnership with the federal government.

Rick DeBartolo, senior vice president of LMC Insurance & Risk Management Inc., provided an overview of the major changes ahead for employers, health care providers and insurers and brokers. Among his key observations:

- More people are going to be seeking care from a limited supply of physicians and specialists, so employers should be seeking alternate ways for employees to access health care providers, such as telemedicine and online resources.

- Employers should begin now to track employment hours to start the clock on measuring their workers’ hours to determine which will need to be counted as full time under the 30-hour-per-week rule determining eligibility for health coverage.

“Whatever happens next year probably won’t set in concrete what’s going to happen the next five,” said Jeff Russell, president and CEO of Delta Dental of Iowa, who was among a panel that included Ed Brown, CEO of The Iowa Clinic P.C.; Joel Duncan, president of Merit Resources Inc., and Paul Drey, managing partner of Brick Gentry P.C.

Brown said The Iowa Clinic has added 40 primary care physicians in the past 18 months and has expanded its clinic locations in anticipation of the influx of additional patients.

“We’re setting up an objective that if a patient wants to see a specialist, they can access one within 48 hours,” he said.

Duncan said the last thing businesses should be doing is “hunkering down.”

“What I would tell you to do is outsource the functions that aren’t part of your core competitiveness,” he said.