When open enrollment ends and every employee has checked a box for a health plan, some may think the employer’s job is finished. But actually, it has just begun.
The true challenge of health care runs the rest of the year. An employee could get a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease or be dealing with improper diet or stress-driven behaviors that could degrade individual health and overall employee well-being. 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 need to engage employees all year long on practical issues of personal and financial health.
Employers must get and keep employees — and their families — engaged because it is the choices that 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 affect health must be consistent throughout the entire year.
Employers need to focus on benefits communication, because a lack of engagement has clear costs, direct and indirect, including:
• Health plan costs continue to rise by a staggering 9 percent in 2011, according to this year’s survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust. Costs of employer-sponsored health benefits continue to outstrip wages and general inflation at a pace of nearly three to one.
• Lost productivity. 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.
• Chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and arthritis, account for $3 of every $4 in health care costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet chronic conditions are among the most preventable problems, the CDC says.
Start with a strategy to communicate — before, during and after enrollment — how employees can adopt better health habits and most advantageously use health benefits 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.
• Define healthy behaviors, including examples, and offer incentives. Highlight the benefits available to employees such as preventive health screenings, physical exams and immunizations.
• Communicate year-round. Develop and follow a schedule, including seasonal health issues like ways to stay in shape in the winter, safety for outdoor summer activities and protecting oneself during flu season.
• Use a variety of channels. Each employee has personal preferences about how to receive information — print materials, intranet feature stories, emails, etc. — so reach out to employees in the ways they find most accessible.
• Integrate communication efforts. Human resource activities and training, internal communication, mailings from insurance providers and contacts with brokers or agents should all offer consistent messages and reinforcement for employees.
• Measure results. Survey employees’ health and satisfaction with their health care benefits, as well as tracking the costs to the employers and employees.
In working with hundreds of employers, one fact has become clear: To put the brakes on spiraling health care costs, employers and their health care partners must work together to change employees’ behavior — not just provide benefits that cover costs of getting sick and expect health to improve.
Dennis Triplett is chief executive officer of UMB Healthcare Services.
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It happens during every enrollment season at every company around the country. Overwhelmed by the volume of decisions they have to make in such a narrow window of time, employees march themselves through their benefits selections on autopilot.
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