Business owners across all industries are facing uncertainty surrounding the status of current laws and regulations. A Republican majority in Congress and the new presidential administration have created a climate of de-regulation. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, depending on your view, U.S. employers of all sizes are currently facing a potentially major regulatory change with U.S. Republicans attempting to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with their own bill: the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Now, the big question is: “What will be next?”
Aside from the implications this holds for the health care industry, enacting the ACHA would have a tremendous impact on employers by repealing the mandate that requires certain businesses to offer health insurance to their employees. While most businesses would likely support fewer regulations, repealing this mandate would do little to help them encourage healthier behaviors amongst their employees; and at the end of the day, that is the only true way to lower health care costs. Rather, repealing the mandate simply means that fewer Americans will be insured and that the cost-burden will shift to employees and their families.
Whether or not the current administration or even the public at-large wants to admit it, someone is going to pay for the costs of health care. All current or proposed laws and regulations do is juggle who is going to pay and who is not. Behind all these changes, however, it’s necessary to understand that employers need healthy, productive employees in order for their business to function, In addition, they want them to be insured at a reasonable cost, while also staying healthy and avoiding getting sick or injured. If the goal really is to lower actual costs, then this is where the real debate must be focused. Since it’s impossible to predict exactly how legislative initiatives will play out, employers should double down on their approach to employee wellbeing and examine how a holistic approach to wellness will improve the health of their workforce and bottom line, independent of laws or mandates from Washington.
It is fortunate for the HR industry that the perfect tools to facilitate this holistic approach and start lowering costs are already being deployed by proactive organizations in the form of employee wellness programs. For years though, most wellness programs have consumed time, money and other resources, but failed to achieve the intended goal of engaging employees and providing long-term benefits. Even if a program offers great rewards, such as discounts on insurance premiums or monetary contributions to health savings plans, employers still typically see participation rates of just 5 percent and 15 percent. This demonstrates a clear failure to achieve the desired outcome, and is simply unacceptable considering the long-term implications and costs.
There is a saying that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, while expecting different results. This is exactly the issue facing wellness programs today. Asking employees to walk 10,000 steps a day or to take health risk assessments is an old, short-sighted take on personal wellness that does little to incentivize meaningful behavioral change towards leading a healthier life.
The way employers should go about “fixing” wellness programs is to take a holistic view of their employees and understand how external factors, such as their financial wellbeing, living situation or family life, impact the overall effectiveness and success of a wellness program. This requires evaluating and measuring much more than an employee’s physical health; it requires employers to consider the health and wellness of employee’s entire family and lifestyle. If an employee is consistently taking off work to care for a sick spouse or elderly parents, then the employee is likely to face other issues beyond the simple stress of taking care of a loved one. Regardless of the exact difficulties they face, the extra burden means they could have higher absenteeism, be less productive and inevitably affect the business’s bottom line.
A wellness program that empowers employees to better manage and control their own health and the health of their family is essential to establishing a stronger, more productive and healthier workforce. This begins by helping employees and their families understand their health history, teaching them how to use digital health records and understanding how to engage them so that they can become responsible health care consumers. As employees begin tracking their family’s medical history, current vitals, care plans and disease treatments, and seeing the impact of poor and positive health care decisions, they become invested in making meaningful behavioral changes and leading a healthier lifestyle — again, the only true avenue to lowering costs. Understand also that the future of health care will revolve around a system of value-based care that rewards long-term health. This means that patients (e.g. employees and their families) who are already taking these steps towards preventive care will benefit sooner, as the costs of health care for long-term and emergency medical treatment continue to rise.
The answer to lowering health care costs for employers is based in the employee’s ability to simultaneously improve upon and manage the health of themselves and their families. By taking a comprehensive view of employee health and utilizing a program that is equipped to support a wider segment of the wellness spectrum, employers will attract and retain employees and reap the benefits of a healthier and more productive workforce and lower costs.
Let the politicians argue about who is going to pay for health care and who is not. While they battle it out, business owners can start deploying their long-term plan to encourage improved employee health. This is one area we all can agree about, and start acting on, now.