Getting a grip on health care

When open enrollment ends and every employee has checked a box for a health plan, is the broker or agent’s job finished? Should the employer be satisfied after this flurry of activity? Is the employee motivated to make better health decisions?

Not really.

The true challenge of health care runs the rest of the year. An employee could get a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease leading to lifelong worries and rising costs. Smoking, eating or stress-driven behaviors could degrade individual health. And lost productivity due to illness could cause bottom-line damage to the employer’s financial performance.

To truly get a grip on health care, employers—and brokers and agents who want to add value—need to engage employees all year long on practical issues of personal and financial health. And doing this is more complicated than shopping rates or handing out brochures at enrollment time.

Unfortunately, many employers often lack the resources and expertise to design and implement proper communication plans, especially in the small and mid-size employer segments.

Helping employers engage

As we have worked with hundreds of employers, brokers and third-party administrators, one fact has become clear: To put the brakes on spiraling health care costs, all of us must work together to change employees’ behavior—not just provide benefits that cover costs of getting sick and expect health to improve.

Especially in today’s changing health care market, an important way for brokers and agents to demonstrate value is to increase their involvement in helping employers communicate with employees.

We must get and keep employees—and their families—engaged because it is the choices employees and their families make that have the biggest impact on their health and health care costs. Benefits communication aimed at educating employees and their families about using plans effectively, and how daily choices and actions can impact health must be consistent throughout the entire year, not just during the few weeks of enrollment.

We must help employers, because a lack of engagement has clear costs, direct and indirect, including:

  • Annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage are up 4 percent from 2011 reaching $15,745, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust 2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey.
  • Lost productivity. The business impact of unhealthy employees hurts employers even more than direct costs. For every $1 of medical and pharmacy expenses to treat employees, employers lose $2.30 in productivity (sick days and reduced on-the-job productivity), according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which surveyed 10 employers that delved into the records of more than 50,000 employees. The biggest causes of lost productivity? Chronic conditions, not acute illness or injuries
  • Chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, arthritis and back/neck pain, in fact, account for $3 of every $4 in health care costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Yet chronic conditions are among the most preventable problems, CDC says. Getting people to stop smoking, eat better, exercise more and limit alcohol intake would cut costs significantly.

Employers need to find ways to encourage employees to embrace new habits that help them manage and maintain their personal and financial health. Wellness activities such as early diagnosis, regular physical exams and immunizations have been proven to significantly reduce costs and lost work time. Brokers and agents are particularly well positioned to help employers in this process by providing their expertise, materials and a plan employers can use to help engage employees.

Developing a plan for engagement

Brokers and agents should partner with clients in developing a plan for engaging employees. Start with a strategy to communicate—before, during and after enrollment—how employees can adopt better health habits and make the most of health benefits through smart utilization throughout the year, which will ultimately improve both their personal and financial health.

A few broad strategy principles for engaging employees:

  • Make it clear that the employee and his or her family are the key decision-makers for their own health. While everyone is concerned about the latest increases in health care costs, each person holds in his or her own hands the choices to control health care costs over the long- term.
  • Define healthy behaviors, including examples, and offer incentives. Highlight the benefits available to employees such as preventive health screenings, physical exams, immunizations and the like. These messages can be developed collaboratively by all involved in the delivery of each company’s health care coverage, including the broker, carrier and human resources or benefits manager.
  • Communicate all year long. Develop and follow a schedule, including seasonal health issues, such as pre-enrollment and post-enrollment reminders on benefits, ways to stay in shape in the winter, safety for outdoor summer activities and protecting oneself in the cold and flu season.
  • Use a variety of channels. Each employee has personal preferences about how to receive information—postcards at home, print materials, intranet feature stories, emails or social media—so reach out to employees in the ways they find most accessible. And don’t forget the spouse.
  • Integrate communication efforts. Human resource activities and training, management meetings, internal communications, mailings from insurance providers and contacts with brokers or agents should all offer consistent messages and reinforcement for employees.
  • Measure results. You can help employers survey their employees’ health and satisfaction with their health care benefits, as well as tracking the costs to the employers and employees.

Supporting your success

We have incorporated these ideas into our UMB Toolkits, a comprehensive turnkey strategy for effectively communicating employee benefits. The UMB Toolkits were developed to support and enhance communication throughout the open enrollment process and beyond, while garnering superior understanding and participation rates among employees.

The UMB Toolkits include a phased approach with emphasis on implementation, launch and ongoing communication needs. Customizable for each workplace, the UMB Toolkits include templates for everything from postcards to tweets. The strategy maps out a yearlong communication campaign on benefits and employee actions toward better physical and financial health.

The strategic communication program contained in the UMB Toolkits provides employers with the materials they need to successfully educate employees, while ultimately empowering individuals to be better health care consumers. This is invaluable for employers whose organizations are often stretched for time and resources to develop a robust communication plan.

At a time when the health care system is under pressure and resources are stretched, brokers and agents have an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the employers they serve. They can demonstrate their value by sharing their expertise and resources to help employers effectively engage their employees in better physical and financial health. 

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