You’re looking at your expenses and that health care cost is just glaring at you. If only you could chop that number.
In fact, many employers are. The economic downturn has caused 60 percent of employers to change their health plan or strategy, according to a National Business Group on Health/Watson Wyatt Worldwide study. With the median health care cost per employee estimated to reach $7,400 this year, many employers are transferring costs to their employees.
That may be an idea of your own, or a route you’ve already taken. But insurance providers and health care experts are cautioning you to think twice if you want true savings and you want to hang onto your employee base.
“For a long-term solution, employers need to look beyond shifting costs to their employees or cutting benefits,” says Veronica Martin, president of Humana of Indiana. “Instead, businesses need to encourage their work force to get more engaged. This means helping employees understand the cost of health care, beyond premiums and co-pays; select the best care for a fair price; and make healthy (choices) to lower costs in the years to come.”
More than 75 percent of employers’ health care costs and productivity losses are linked to employee lifestyle choices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cutting or renegotiating your health benefits can save money. But until you understand what’s driving your costs — your employees’ bad habits — you’re not going to reach the root of the problem. The bottom line is, the more your employees use their insurance, the more you’re paying.
Understand what you’re paying for
To really control costs, you have to understand what they are.
Sit down with your broker or third-party administrator to discuss your claims. You need to understand the specifics of your employees and how they’re using their insurance, meaning what services they’re seeking, what medications they’re on and perhaps discern the top illnesses they suffer from.
Larger companies dedicate time every week or once a month to go line item by line item and chart trends, but for smaller companies, it may take months to paint a clear picture. The overall goal is to carve out a specific area that your employees are using a lot of and try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the health need. For example, finding out your employees use the emergency room as a physician’s office or pay three times the price of a generic drug for brand-name medication can empower you to seek cost-saving solutions for you and your employees.
“The solution really needs to be one of utilization, one of individual employee engagement, and one of good communication and information flow based on real claims,” says Vicki Perry, president and CEO of ADVANTAGE Health Solutions Inc.
Once you have a better understanding of where you’re spending money, don’t be afraid to look to your broker or health plan provider for advice on the next step. Much of your costs can be deterred by simply educating your employees, and most health insurance providers and local hospitals offer informative tools and programs as aids.
Understand what to educate your employees on
You don’t need to know the specifics, like the annual median cost increase for health care is estimated at 7 percent for 2009, to know costs are rising. And your employees probably notice the difference in their paychecks.
There’s no better time to proposition your employees with ideas that can better their health and save them money. Plus, emphasizing healthy living can quickly boost workplace morale and productivity, which can’t hurt in these uncertain times.
“We’ve basically said laying people off will be the last thing that we can do; however, we need your help in terms of reducing costs,” says Bill Corley, president and CEO of Community Health Network.
In order to provide your employees with pertinent information, you have to understand what risks they face. Many employers are opting to screen their employees, hiring a local clinic or hospital to come to the office and perform body mass index tests. The anonymous results are later given to you as a snapshot of your employees’ health.
Costs for the screenings vary dramatically. But another option is having your employees fill out a health assessment, which may cost nothing and take little time. Most insurance providers offer online health assessments, which may even be an incentive connected to your health plan. If you opt for an assessment, the provider then takes the information and directly contacts your employee with wellness information and advice.
Either route you go, the group you seek out can help you devise techniques that will speak to your employees’ needs and interests.
“One of the things that we are basically selling to companies to help them reduce their health care costs is we are developing on-site clinics,” Corley says. “The employees like the convenience.
“We know that it is decreasing their overall health care costs because, one, they’re not having to take time off of work, and two, the fee is actually paid by the employer and that is much less than going to every one of the physicians that people then would have to frequent.”
Step into action
Now you know the services your employees are using and the health risks that force them to seek care. However, you’re pinching pennies, and investing in a full-blown wellness program, which is estimated at the high end to cost $400 per employee, to support healthy living is the furthest thing on your mind.
But some food for thought: Wellness programs can see a 2-to-1 or even a 3-to-1 return on investment. And results usually can be seen in a year.
But money isn’t necessarily needed to see results.
Employee behaviors can be directly impacted at work with no added cost by changing vending machine options, starting a walking club or banning smoking. Ask your broker or a local health association to hold monthly seminars at your office. Ask your provider what free services it offers.
To really get employees to perform, the need for incentives still holds true. Companies have seen immediate savings in paying for employees’ medication if they buy generic. Another idea is linking an employee’s program participation to his or her health plan. If employees reach lower targets in weight and cholesterol, consider paying for their insurance. Their healthier lifestyle means less risk for chronic diseases and probably fewer medications and visits to doctors.
“One of the strategies we use is our wellness program is very, very low cost,” Perry says. “Where we want to see the employer spend some dollars is creating incentive programs that engage the greatest number of his employee base.”
Research will tell you there’s room for creativity. But whichever route you take, you must see it as an investment in your employees.
“Businesses who invest in the health of their employees see a return on their investments through lower health care costs, lower absenteeism and increased productivity,” Martin says. “The bottom line is that unhealthy lifestyles are the single largest driver of health care costs in our country, and any discussion of long-term impact on employer costs trends must include improving individual health.”