The most obvious trends among employer-sponsored medical planshave been well documented: broad cost-shifting to employees,deductibles on the rise, specialty prescription costsskyrocketing.

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But beneath this high level of plan characteristics lies anothertrending level less well quantified. In the 2016 Medical PlanTrends and Observations Report, leadership and technologyconsulting firm CEB and DirectPath dig deeper into plancharacteristics that emerged this year. Along with identifying amore detailed level of plan components, CEB offers its“implications for executives” in which it advises management on thehandling of specific plan pieces.

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Virtual care: The research discloses a 50percent gain in the number of companies in the survey that say theyare using telemedicine services — one ofthe largest jumps in any category. More than a third now offerthem; by 2018, that will grow to 64 percent.

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CEB’s implications for executives: As onlinepatient medical consultations explode, “employers should educateemployees on the appropriateness of virtual care for their healthcare needs. For example, employers should emphasize that virtual consultations are notasubstitute for regular visits with a primary care physician.”

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Wellness incentives: About half of thosesurveyed have wellness programs, and they’reramping up the incentives to promote participation.

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Implications: “Wellness programs, whenstrategic in nature and offered holistically (including emotional,mental, and even financial wellness), can further improve theemployers’ operations by increasing employee productivity,engagement, and retention.”

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Pregnancy cost: Although the Patient Protectionand Affordable Care Act (PPACA) requires employers to offer manyfree maternity services, not all fall under the Act’srequirements. And employers are raising the employee share ofthose costs. In fact, the survey found that out-of-pocket expensesfor an in-hospital birth were up 35 percent this year.

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Implications: “Organizations should be wary ofincreasing hospital costs too aggressively, as employees areparticularly cost-sensitive to them, especially formaternity-related services.” Option: “Offer financial planning andcounseling to help employees choose the best plan and save (throughhealth savings accounts) for post-pregnancy services.”

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Surcharges: Employers are looking to spousalsurcharges to recover some costs, with “41 percent ofemployers introducing or planning to introduce spousal surchargesand a few even excluding spouses from coverage altogether.”

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Implications: “Use of spousal surchargesmay merit a closer look as many employers consider eliminatingsame-sex domestic partner coverage (as it is rolled into spousalcoverage).”

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Overall advice from CEB and DirectPath to management is thatcost-cutting and shifting of costs to employees may be "trendy" in2016, but top performing companies will want to weigh the benefitsof cost management versus the benefits of a workforce that is moreengaged. When employees enjoy a healthy benefits package thatdoesn't nickel and dime them, but allows them to utilize theircoverage for better health, they perform better.

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.