How to help your employees be better consumers of their health care

Helping employees think differently about their health care choices and responsibilities as consumers is a growing trend with employers.

“There is a significant opportunity to help plan members be better consumers,” says Joe Roberts, area vice president in Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.’s Health & Welfare practice. “Why wouldn’t you put as much thought into buying a $2,500 MRI as you would when you buy an $800 television set?”

Teaching employees to ask their health care provider about the cost of services or less expensive alternatives can drive down cost for both employees and employer-sponsored health plans.

Smart Business spoke with Roberts about educating employees to take control of their health care.

What do employers need to know about this?

The biggest opportunity to impact cost and overall organizational success comes from a holistic assessment of an employer’s benefits strategy, reviewing how all aspects align with workplace culture and the organization’s unique demographics. A number of different cost-saving strategies could be considered, like switching insurance carriers, alternative funding, narrow networks, prescription management and well-being programs.

One trend is consumer-driven health care plans, or CDHP, designed to get employees engaged in their health care buying decisions. This task can be challenging and often requires the right partner to help tailor communications. For example, helping people feel more confident in their ability to question physicians about treatment plans can improve their level of consumerism.

Employees who actively engage in their health care can affect an employer’s ability to sustain the plan. If employees are educated and engaged, the employer and employee may save in the short- and long-term.

Why is boosting consumerism important?

Employees empowered to be better consumers are more likely to advocate for themselves. They tend to research procedures and facilities and ask their doctors the right questions. This approach often leads to more informed decisions about the quality and cost of care.

Taking time to do research can amount to significant savings. The cost of health care for similar procedures can vary greatly depending on where the procedure is performed. According to Debt.org, an estimated $18 billion could be saved per year if non-emergent medical issues were treated in doctors’ offices and urgent care facilities.

What best practices do you see from companies that educate their employees?

Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Establish a consistent communication plan addressing topics such as benefit plan basics, hot topics within health care, changes to benefit plans and/or networks, and tips for increasing physical, mental and emotional well-being.
  • Provide employees with access to health care transparency tools. These tools, which are simple to use, give the ability to research quality of care among providers as well as the cost of procedures between providers and facilities. Ask employees to consider the amount of research they put into purchasing a new vehicle or household appliance, and help them apply that toward their health care decisions.
  • Provide alternative ways of obtaining care. A great example is telemedicine and virtual medicine programs that allow employees and their family members to consult with a physician over the phone or through video conferencing (often using smartphones and tablets). In addition to convenience, a virtual visit may cost one-third of an office visit — saving the employee and the health plan money.

Where do employers make mistakes with this? What can they do to avoid them?

The biggest mistake employers can make is to do nothing. It’s challenging to tackle these issues alone, so employers should work closely with their benefits consulting firm. Ideally, the firm should provide services and expertise in areas like employee communication and engagement. Improving communication and education is a great start, but those strategies alone won’t move the needle. Employers need to find creative ways to get employees engaged.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.