Wellness programs battle rising costs

Health care costs have been on the rise for years. Greedy insurance companies, more expensive medical technology, government involvement or lack thereof—the reasons cited by the talking heads seem almost endless.

Some also point to an aging work force as a source for rising health care costs, but this one work force issue may not necessarily be the whole picture, says Kerry Anne McGeary, professor of health economics at Ball State University. Instead, McGeary believes the many chronic diseases that are affecting the work force are to blame.

“There has been some information that suggests these increases are due to the aging of our work force,” McGeary says. “I am not aware of any published study that documents this relation. However, there has been some research that documents that America’s work force suffers from chronic disease and, often, preventable disease. To the extent that this is true, this will increase health care costs and premiums associated with insuring this group.”

When creating an effective wellness program, communication is not the only step to ensuring its effectiveness. To be effective, McGeary says, a wellness program must mitigate risky behaviors, such as the use of tobacco or alcohol and engaging in poor nutrition, but it also must promote healthy choices. This is the most critical component, which is directly supported by the Institute for Corporate Productivity report.

“Wellness programs are also the most amenable to incentives since there is a direct link between employee effort and measurable employee health outcome,” the report says. “Wellness programs are considered relatively more effective at cost containment than other medical plan programs.”

Regarding the effectiveness of specific wellness programs, the most successful methods are biometric screenings at 71.4 percent, health risk questionnaires at 50 percent and executive health exams at 42.9 percent. These three forms of wellness programs are all designed to catch chronic diseases—and if caught early—this can be a huge cost saver to both the employer and employee.

Of course, employer communication is essential for helping employees understand all benefits, including wellness programs, the report finds. For those trying to promote wellness initiatives—which is especially important given the proliferation of chronic diseases—email blasts, lunch-and-learn sessions, website announcements and promotional events are the most popular sources of communication.

Ultimately, an employer’s human resources department must focus on its benefits plan strategy, which includes wellness programs, moving forward, the report says. HR departments are in the position to show that these programs are changing in plan design as well as the tactic toward engaging employees and communicating a new employee value proposition.

To achieve this, the report recommends HR departments offer employees a meaningful perspective on health care benefits and communicate clearly and frequently.

“Thoughtful communication can provide employees the context they need to make the right choices in terms of health plans and lifestyle,” the report says. “Organizations that can differentiate themselves in health care benefits through innovative programs will be able to highlight their unique employee value proposition to attract talent that responds to accountability and incentives.”

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