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Making Employee Health A Fundamental Part Of Company Culture

Dick Quinn of Quinn’s Commentary has a pithy post about why it’s hard for the government to control healthcare costs. He says:

Nobody complains about the cost of healthcare, rather they complain about their insurance premiums or their payroll deductions for health benefits.

He’s right about what politicians react to. The healthcare reform law is loaded with things that are meant to contain the price of coverage. But I would add two words to his post:

“Nobody who votes complains about the cost of healthcare.”

It’s true: The large employers who pay for much of healthcare in America complain about the cost a lot. But they are doing something about it.

In my work, I have the opportunity to present at events with some of our Fortune 500 clients. (I have one this week with The Home Depot, hosted by the National Business Group on Health. The event information here — you have to be a member of the NBGH to participate). Listening to these customers, you get a good sense of how employers are attacking this problem.

Here are the top three trends I see benefits professionals talking about:

1.  Engagement and Prevention

Doing things to help employees be enthusiastic believers in their company is high on the list of many companies’ strategic objectives. Employee benefits are an important part of that.

A senior benefits leader at a Fortune 100 employer I presented with earlier this year said his company surveyed its employees to see what they wanted in their benefits package. Number 1? That the company’s  benefits show it really cares about their well-being. Benefits professionals see health benefits as an opportunity to engage employees in their jobs.

Now, with this engagement comes responsibility. Employers are pushing their employees to lose weight, stop smoking, and lead healthier lifestyles. They’ve been doing this kind of thing for a while — but increasingly, in the words of one study, they are “raising the stakes.” More than one company we work with charges their employees extra insurance premium (sometimes hundreds of dollars) if they don’t at least try to improve their health. With the shocking increase in obesity of the last 20 years, the prevalence — and cost — of the preventable illnesses that arise from these behaviors keeps growing.

But employers aren’t just doing this to save money. They believe that a healthy, motivated work force helps them be better, more profitable companies.

2.  Consumerism and Clinical Advocacy

While trying to keep employees healthy is a high priority, so is trying to help employees make smart decisions when they are sick. Employers are encouraging employees to do this in an unexpected way — by increasing deductibles.

Increasing deductibles shifts costs onto the employee and away from the company. But employers aren’t doing this for the money they save on the deductibles. What they want is for employees to be more involved in their medical decisions. Many of these decisions cost far more than the deductible.

It sounds good, but one of the big barriers to this kind of healthcare consumerism is that most people aren’t equipped to make these decisions. Employers are partnering with clinical advocacy companies like mine to give employees the tools they need to make sure they get the right care.

While it’s not clear that high deductible plans work for everyone, they are the fastest growing trend in plan design.

3.  Integration and Globalization

Most big employers have a huge variety of benefits offerings available to their employees. Traditionally, employers sent out information to employees that listed these offerings with instructions on how to use them. Experience shows that this approach doesn’t work very well.

There’s an irony in this. Top employers are so successful because they are so good at communicating what they do. So they are taking their marketing smarts and applying them to benefits. Most are giving their benefits packages “brand” names, using the web to make it easier to communicate the details, and making sure everything fits a single, coherent message.

But it’s more than just telling a nice story — these employers want their benefit programs to be integrated. They want the transitions from one service to the next to be seamless.  The goal: Make employee health and well-being a fundamental part of the company’s culture.

It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. As the bad health habits of Americans begin to spread abroad, companies want a global solution. They are implementing the same kinds of programs — prevention, consumerism, and integration — across the world.

U.S. healthcare reform has gotten all of the attention. But there may be more going on to transform American healthcare in the the work of benefits professionals than in the halls of Congress.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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