How to handle disability and absence management in the ACA era

The impact the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has had on employers is one that continues to evolve over time, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, it may prove that the ACA may well have its greatest impact in the area of workers’ compensation.

“The ACA is the greatest incentive to integrate all forms of disability management there has ever been,” says Patrick D. Haughey, associate vice president for Workers’ Compensation at UPMC WorkPartners. “The ACA mandates that employer groups have to provide disability for employees.

“An organization that can manage total disability from beginning to end is one that can deliver for employer groups in this era,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Haughey about integrated disability management and why it makes sense for employers.

Why is absence management so important?

According to a 2013 survey on Absence and Disability Management by Mercer, the direct cost of incidental absence and disability benefits is the equivalent of 4.9 percent of payroll. Mercer estimates that indirect costs, such as replacement labor and lost productivity, are roughly the same, making the total impact of absences at about 8 percent of payroll.

What is integrated absence management?

Integrated absence management is about looking at problems in nontraditional ways.

For instance, if someone injures a knee at work and requires extended leave, in many cases that is looked at as an issue for a company’s workers’ compensation program. That means increased focus on the rehabilitation of the knee and on getting the employee back to work. What doesn’t happen is much time considering what may have caused or exacerbated the injury. Is it a weight problem? Is there a chance the injury could recur if the weight problem is not addressed? Is the employee possibly at risk for other health-related issues? What about the indirect impact of the injury such as stress or depression?

This is a ‘whole person’ approach that looks at all the care provided to an employee and then coordinates that care for the individual by integrating benefits and programs. Health risk factors have consequences and should be addressed proactively. An integrated, total health management approach provides employers with the best strategy to proactively manage its population.

One benefit for employer groups in employing integrated absence management is that it can keep premiums from escalating. An integrated approach, which may include wellness programs (rewarded by the ACA) and things like bringing in loss-prevention specialists, can result in premium reductions.

What would an integrated approach look like?

An actual case that involved UPMC WorkPartners is a good example.

An employee filed a Family and Medical Leave Act claim in order to have time to care for her mother. A leave specialist was able to refer her to our employee assistance program (EAP) to help her get daily care for her mother. In talking with the EAP counselor, the woman revealed that she was overwhelmed by the burdens of a job and additional family responsibility. The woman was then enrolled in a coaching program to help her learn how to better manage her time and stress.

The net result was an employee who was able to return to work with limited distractions.

What are some methods used in integrated absence management?

It’s important to align and integrate workers’ compensation, disability and leave. You also must be able to provide access to medical expertise throughout the life of a claim. Understanding the connections between programs and how each program can impact an employee at a time when assistance is needed most is critical to a successful integrated absence management strategy.

The only way to reduce time away from work is to align traditionally siloed occupation and non-occupational programs, and through those programs identify opportunities to positively impact more people and, as a result, improve the health and productivity of the workforce.

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