A fully insured business will shop around with different health insurance companies for the best value, including a good network. However, self-funded health plans — which are growing in popularity — contract with a rental network that administers benefits with the help of a third-party administrator.

Smart network provider contracting will maintain lower costs and access to care for members. Many employers only look at the discounts for services in the contract, but there are other methods just as important when evaluating a network.

“There are always some things out of your control, but you try to manage the network and build in predictability to make sure you have control over it rather than the providers,” says Jamie Huether, regional vice president, Network Management, at HealthLink, which rents its network to self-funded entities.

Smart Business spoke with Huether about what to consider when evaluating a network contractor.

How can a network provider maintain lower costs?

A network provider employs a number of contracting methodologies to help health plan clients achieve the best rates. One is having as many fixed rates and as much charge master protection as possible, which limits exposure to provider changes. So, for instance, if a health care provider bills $3,000 for a procedure, and then increases it to $4,000, the network provider’s fixed charge of, say, $900 remains the same.

The alternative is reimbursement methodologies that pay a percentage of the billed charge, which rise as the bill increases. This fully exposes whoever is paying the claim to whatever the providers want to bill.

Why is the network with the highest discount not always the best option?

When evaluating networks, focus not only on the network discount but also the unit of cost, or what the service actually costs. Although the discount can look good, it doesn’t tell the whole story because providers don’t bill the same. Typically, hospitals owned by for-profit entities have a higher billed charge structure than not-for-profit hospitals. So, an appendectomy at a for-profit hospital may have a 75 percent discount for a final procedure cost of $15,000. However, the same appendectomy at a not-for-profit hospital might only have a 30 percent discount but just cost $9,000.

In addition, facilities make charge master — the master list of what they bill for services — changes throughout the year, depending on financial goals. These increases aren’t across the board because some service lines are bigger revenue drivers.

How does the network contractor work with self-funded businesses?

A self-funded plan sponsor contracts with a rental network to help manage costs and plan ahead. For example, one rental network used multi-year contracts to limit uncertainty and keep costs low. By offering stability to the health care providers, who also are trying to budget, it could mean a cost break.

A network contractor shares management reports with self-funded entities to show what they are spending at each facility and the average cost per day. The rental network also can report upcoming negotiations and cost increases that are locked in, giving businesses greater control.

When looking for a health network, what should you ask?

Health plan sponsors need to look for stable, broad networks with good geographic coverage. You don’t want to contract with a network where providers are coming in or out, or that doesn’t include one of the area hospitals. Businesses should ask:

  • How much turnover is there in your network?
  • Do you anticipate any major provider terminations in the next 12 months?
  • What is the network doing with respect to transparency around costs for certain procedures, as well as being able to provide answers about quality?

Another factor is size — a network provider that does a lot of business can use that to leverage better rates from health care providers. Ask about additional services, such as customized directories, and how much help the network will provide to resolve issues related to the pricing of claims. Finally, determine how flexible the network is in addressing issues important to you.

Jamie Huether is regional vice president, network management at HealthLink. Reach her at (314) 923-6756 or jhuether@healthlink.com.

Learn more about HealthLink's broad network of contracted physicians, hospitals and other health care professionals on their website.

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With employers facing ever-rising health insurance premiums, most are looking to control costs.

They may increase co-pays and deductibles, or decrease benefits. But there are other steps to accomplish that goal without impacting benefits or increasing employees’ costs, says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management at HealthLink.

“Lowering the cost of health care is driven by managing utilization,” Haegele says. “There are a number of things in your data covering members’ use that you can address to help control costs. Too often, people are not educated about alternatives to the emergency room.”

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about how to lower the cost of health care without modifying benefits.

Where should employers start?

From 1996 to 2006, the annual number of U.S. emergency room visits grew from 90.3 million to 119.2 million, and from 34.2 to 40.5 visits per 100 residents. So, look at emergency room usage and other high utilization data points to identify trends. By focusing on those areas, you can ultimately have an impact.

Identify if overuse of the ER is an issue, and, if it is, what is driving it. Then you can implement action plans to lower costs for that high-cost category.

What should an employer be looking for?

Over the last three years, has the number of visits per member per month gone up year after year? And, has the cost per member per month gone up year after year? If yes, ask why.

Look at frequency of visits per person to identify whether a subset is going to the ER 10 or more times a year. If yes, determine how to address those people. Do you need case management nurses to help them find a better path to care? Do they need help finding a primary care physician? Can you educate them on alternatives?

Also, look at the reasons for ER visits. There are two categories — symptom, injury or poisoning, and disease and virus. If someone breaks an ankle, that person is going to the ER. But the disease and virus category is a different story. More than 60 percent of ER visits are for things such as sinusitis, flu, cough, headache, etc. This category can be managed.

Twenty-four hour nurse lines, urgent care clinics and clinics in pharmacies all are lower-cost alternatives. The cost of the ER averages $800 to $900, versus $65 to $150 for the alternatives. If more than 50 percent of ER visits fall into disease and virus, you know where to focus your energy to modify utilization and create awareness.

Emergency room management: Getting care when you need it quickly. Learn when to use the ER, or not.

How can employers create that awareness?

Education is No. 1. Post information, do emails blasts, distribute articles, do payroll stuffers, anything you can to get the word out.

Many employers have penalties, so if an ER visit is not a true emergency under the plan design, it doesn’t pay. But hospitals have ways of getting around that. Typical plan designs waive that penalty if a patient is admitted. Guess what? Now your admissions just went up.

A better approach is to educate people. And explain that if the ER coinsurance is $150, that’s $150 out of their pocket, whereas at an urgent care center the cost is much less. And often the wait is shorter. Sell your members on appropriate lower levels of care that are more easily accessible, less expensive and more convenient.

How do hospitals play into the equation?

Hospitals code ER visits from one to five, with five being the most severe, but some hospitals never code lower than three. As a result, if employers identify overcharging for ER visits, address the issue with the hospital.

The employer, with the insurance company, can co-write a letter with the high coding data, while asking the hospital to reconsider the way it’s coding ER visits and to consider establishing an urgent care center for lower level visits to the facility. One letter isn’t going to result in a new facility, but it does create awareness, and often coding starts to be more appropriate. The employer, the hospital, the member and the insurance company have to work together, as they all have a stake in the game. Everyone shares equal responsibility in managing this.

Mark Haegele is a director, sales and account management, at HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 925-6310 or Mark.Haegele@healthlink.com.

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To avoid elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) adversely affecting fully insured health plans, growing numbers of employers — especially smaller ones — are self-funding their plans.

“The problem is that everybody has been in a wait-and-see mode for two years, but now we’re starting to see the impact,” says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management, at HealthLink. “I expect a lot of fully insured employers to make a change this year, mid-year. There are just so many compelling reasons to entertain it because self-funding policies still protect small employers and allow them to avoid many forthcoming taxes and rules.”

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about why the PPACA has prompted more employers to explore self-funding or partial self-funding.

How does medical loss ratio (MLR) reporting drive employers to self-funding?

Less service.

MLR reporting requires insurance companies to spend 80 or 85 percent — depending on their size — of premiums received on health care claims. Plan administration, such as overhead, payroll, sales efforts, network contracting, etc., comes from the remaining 15 to 20 percent.

MLR gives insurance companies an incentive to squeeze administrative services to make more profit. Some insurance companies have changed staffing and service models. One company had service people out to help with claim issues and problems for different segments — health insurance groups with two to 40 members, and 40 to 100 members. They recently bundled the segments into one, cutting staff and decreasing field service.

What will community rating rules do to health care costs?

Effective Jan. 1, 2014, insurers must comply with community rating factors based on geography, age, family composition and tobacco use. This means all fully insured small employers in an area or industry will pay the same for premiums. The idea is to get everybody to an affordable and stable price point, but many fully insured groups will be hit with big increases.

Here’s an example: in Missouri and Illinois, groups of fewer than 50 employees will be underwritten based on community rating rather than the specific group’s risk. A small, healthy employee group in Chicago can expect a 173 percent increase in 2014, according to the American Action Forum Survey of Insurance Companies. At the same time, a small Chicago group with older, less healthy members could have its premium decrease by 21 percent.

Under self-funding, healthy small groups are able to maintain rate stability based on the health of their own population.

How will the insurance tax affect health premiums for fully insured employers?

Starting in 2014, insurance carriers will be assessed a tax, projected to be $8 billion to $12 billion. The federal government will use this money to subsidize poor uninsured. However, insurance is a cost-plus business, so carriers will pass this on to employers. It’s still unclear how much the fully insured’s premium will increase as the tax is shared across the industry; it depends on your insurance company’s market share.

How will minimum essential benefits make self-funding more attractive?

Fully-insured plans sold in the small group market — fewer than 50 employees for Missouri and Illinois — will be required to limit annual deductibles to $2,000 for single coverage and $4,000 for family coverage, as of Jan. 1, 2014. This places upward pressure on premiums. If your current deductible is greater than $2,000, in order to decrease it premiums will go up because the insurance company faces more risk.

Also, for the past five years, many small employers’ deductibles have increased, which keeps premiums down, but employers haven’t passed it on. For example, because most members don’t use their deductibles, the employer could give employees a $1,000 deductible and use self-funding to cover the gap for the remaining $4,000 when the insurance company requires a $5,000 deductible to keep premium increases low.

Small employers could consider a self-funded platform in order to maintain their current deductible and keep rates stabilized.

Mark Haegele is a director, sales and account management, at HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 753-2100 or mark.haegele@healthlink.com.


VIDEO: Watch our videos, “Saving Money Through Self-Funding Parts 1 & 2.”

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Integrating a comprehensive behavioral health plan into the medical health plan your company sponsors is a win-win. Employees are able to improve their health mentally and physically, and the employer can track cost savings related to direct health care costs and indirect costs through more productive, healthy employees.

“One out of every four adults will experience a mental health disorder in a given year,” says Tom Albert, manager, Behavioral Health Services at HealthLink. “I think few people, in general, realize the rates are that high.”

Smart Business spoke with Albert about how integrating behavioral and medical health allows employers to better coordinate their members’ care.

How do behavioral and medical health impact employers?

The rate of one in four adults experiencing a mental health disorder annually goes even higher for those with chronic medical problems. Furthermore, employees with untreated psychiatric or substance use disorders can be at a higher risk of on-the-job injuries. This can lead to missed time from work, expensive treatment and a decrease in quality of life for the individual.

Absenteeism is not the only concern for employers. Presenteeism, or the loss in productivity of employees who come to work sick, can also be costly for employers. The Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University found that depression and other mental health problems are among the illnesses that have the most significant decrease to productivity.

What’s the advantage of integrating behavioral and medical health management?

Ninety-three percent of Americans believe a health care plan should cover behavioral health treatment, according to a National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems survey. Some workplaces don’t cover behavioral health. Other employer groups cover it but carve out the management, which makes it difficult to coordinate care.

Having one organization manage both medical and behavioral health benefits is gaining popularity among employers. With integration, the health plan’s medical and behavioral clinicians collaborate and ensure that individuals and their families have access to care that best meets their needs.

What are the overall goals of utilization and case management for behavioral health?

Utilization management ensures that health plan members have access to the care they need; that care is delivered in the right setting; that the quality of care meets high standards; and that resources are used efficiently in order to help control costs.

Case management involves case managers communicating directly with members and their families to assist them in navigating the health care system; addressing any obstacles to accessing treatment; and empowering members and their families to maintain an optimal level of health and functioning.

Case management helps the member to stay well so he or she doesn’t have to keep using the same services and missing work.

What is the Mental Health Parity Act?

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 doesn’t mandate that employers of 50 or more employees offer behavioral health coverage, but it does require that if the health plan covers behavioral health services, the financial requirements and treatment limitations are no more restrictive than medical and surgical benefits.

Prior to parity, employer groups often relied on treatment limits to control costs by limiting the number of days in a hospital or the number of visits for outpatient mental health treatment. Parity is good because the limits often were arbitrary, but it does mean the best way to control costs is to ensure care is only approved when medically necessary.

What are the results of formalized behavioral health management and review?

A Milliman case study of a large private manufacturer found a 10 percent reduction in members with chronic medical and psychological conditions saved $1 million annually and another $750,000 from reduced absenteeism, fewer and shorter disabilities, and increased productivity. An effective behavioral health management organization ensures members receive the right treatment in the least restrictive setting, which reduces costs and time missed from work, while improving overall health.

Tom Albert is manager, Behavioral Health Services, at HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 923-6288 or Thomas.Albert@wellpoint.com.

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Stop-loss or reinsurance is a “backup” policy designed to limit claim coverage or losses to a specific amount. This type of coverage ensures catastrophic (specific stop-loss) claims or numerous (aggregate stop-loss) claims don’t deplete your reserves in a self-funded arrangement.

“There are a lot of companies in this stop-loss space, and there are more and more getting into it because the health care law eliminated lifetime limits, and health care costs are driving employers into self-funding,” says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management at HealthLink.

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about what employers should look for when shopping for reinsurance.

What should employers know about the fixed cost of reinsurance?

The main components of a partially self-funded model are the third-party administrator (TPA) that pays claims; pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) network that contracts with doctors and hospitals for discounts; and the reinsurance carrier, which has the highest cost.

Stop-loss represents a disproportionate amount of the fixed costs for an employer. The smaller the employer, the less risk they’re willing to take, the more stop-loss they’ll need to buy and the more expensive it is. For smaller employers, the reinsurance purchasing decision becomes more relative and important. For example, a self-funded employer with a 500-life health policy might purchase specific stop-loss, paying $200,000 in claims for every member before the insurance kicks in. However, if a 20-life employer purchases $10,000 specific stop-loss, the stop-loss cost will be higher.

How can employers and brokers negotiate with stop-loss carriers?

In the eyes of the reinsurance carriers, there is no perfect model of self-funding components. This opens the door for the employer and broker to play a vital role in controlling the premium and overall stop-loss cost. If you can sell the reinsurance carrier on your vendor alignment — your TPA, network and PBM — you can decrease the premium.

Don’t go to the stop-loss carrier and say ‘I’m a 300-life employer and I want to buy $125,000 specific stop-loss,’ while providing your claims experience. Instead, demonstrate, in a refined and focused way, how you are working to lower the impact of large claims. Your premium might have been X, but you could now get X minus 20 percent. Employers and brokers don’t realize how much negotiation room is available.

How can you demonstrate your management of large claims?

Some ways to control large claim costs are having a dialysis or transplant carve out. You pay a small premium for a transplant insurance policy where any transplant will be completely covered, and then the reinsurance carrier gives you a credit, which often pays for the transplant policy premium.

Another option is working with your PBM. For one reinsurance carrier, more than 25 percent of all of the large claims is represented by prescription drugs. For instance, J-codes — high-cost injectable drugs used for hormone therapy or to treat cancer — often run through the medical plan. Finding a PBM that will further negotiate these J-codes while having a focused managed program can reduce that expense by upward of 30 percent.

When you follow these practices, it helps you when you’re paying your premium upfront with the stop loss carrier and downstream by controlling your overall claims.

How should employers and brokers examine stop-loss carriers to find the best price?

It’s important to know how reinsurance carriers have networks rated. If your network is that stop-loss carrier’s best-rated network, the premium will be lower. Reinsurance carriers evaluate networks with different levels of intensity, and therefore get wide ranging results.

Also, carriers give networks different levels of credibility with respect to discounts. For example, if your network gets a 52 percent discount in metro St. Louis, but the carrier only gives 60 percent credibility to that, that’s only a 31 percent discount. Some carriers give 100 percent credibility to the network.

Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 753-2100 or mark.haegele@healthlink.com

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Published in Chicago

Many employers feel they have no control over the health care events of their employee population, seeing themselves as victims rather than informed consumers. However, it’s important to understand there are alternative solutions outside of the “insurance” box options when choosing a health plan for employees.

“As an employer, whether you have 10 employees or 500 employees, there is a whole host of new products and concepts that may make some sense for you — that you really need to explore,” says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management, at HealthLink.

These options, including small group self-funding, captives, exchanges and co-ops, are growing as the health care industry rapidly changes, based on improved data analysis and the drive to keep overall health care costs down.

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about how these out-of-the-box health plan options work and what advantages they can bring.

What options are available for smaller employers who want to self-fund?

There are a host of new programs under a self-funded environment for employers with 10 or more employees. The 15-life employers may never have thought these options were available, but that’s not the case anymore. Self-funded employers can avoid premium taxes and state-issued mandates, while getting away from insurance company risk and profit. The employer has additional freedom to structure its health plan and can receive more claim information to better manage the health of the employee population, and therefore lower costs. Self-funding continues to be of interest to employers.

How do captives work to some employers’ advantage?

Small employers, with help from third-party claims administrators or benefit consultants, join forces to set up their own captives or use a cell in an established captive to cover risk above a self-insured retention. It’s usually made up of similar-sized employers, not necessarily similar in industry-type. For example, a 50-life employer would take the risk up to $50,000 for each member in the health plan. The captive, getting contributions from all employers, takes the risk from $50,000 to $250,000. The re-insurance carrier would risk all costs over $250,000.

By boosting retentions and pooling risks with other employers — who typically agree to put in wellness, disease management and other programs to lower claims costs — employers hope to keep increases in health insurance costs more in check. Also, all contributions to the captive, such as the $50,000 to $250,000 in the example, are tax-free. Finally, by pooling risks, participating employers can hold on to profits — if premiums exceed claims and other costs — rather than surrendering profits to a commercial insurer, as with a fully insured program. Many employers are looking at captives and starting to understand the advantages.

How are employers exploring the use of health care exchanges, both public and private?

Exchanges are new organizations set up to create a more organized and competitive market for buying health insurance. They offer a choice of health plans, certify participating plans and provide information to help consumers better understand options. Private exchanges are beginning to pop up, and in 2014 government-run exchanges will come on line.

Like a cafeteria plan, the consumer has a menu of insurance alternatives, such as five different insurance companies and six different plans, for one rate. While this creates the ultimate choice, exchanges may not be cheaper. Exchanges take away an insurance company’s ability to decline, drawing bad risk like those with major health problems. Many national insurance carriers say when public exchanges start, commercial population premiums will increase by 40 percent.

Private exchanges may be able use their advantages over public ones to lower costs. Even though they cannot decline, they have more control over who is coming in and can make it less attractive for bad risk through higher prices or benefits. Also, public exchanges must take subsidized members — uninsured with income under a certain threshold — who are likely more of a bad-risk population.

Employers are determining whether to continue to offer a health plan or just pay the penalty and send employees to purchase health care off the exchanges. It’s not as simple as it seems — although an employer may pay $8,000 per employee per year to offer a health plan and the penalty is only $2,000 per employee, typically employees demand higher wages when not receiving benefits. Retaining and attracting key employees could be why employers offer benefits in the first place. There are also tax implications with the decision to terminate, including extra taxes. One model found that Company X with 10,030 employees, where 3,000 highly paid employees purchase health care no matter the cost, paid $26 million more to terminate its health plan rather than raise the employee premium.

What role do co-ops play with alternative health plan solutions?

Health insurance purchasing cooperatives allow small businesses and municipalities to band together to negotiate for improved health insurance coverage for employees. The California Health Care Foundation found that under the right circumstances pools can meet cost and coverage goals and expand insurance choices, but it depends on the cohesiveness of a pool’s members and the market in which it operates.

Whatever health plan alternative you find fits your company best, employers do have options outside of the big box. You can get away from typical insurance companies.

Mark Haegele is a director, sales and account management, at HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 753-2100 or mark.haegele@healthlink.com.

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Whether employees smoked used to be a hands-off subject for employers; that was their own business. Today, however, a cultural shift is driving management to take on employee smoking as a way to reduce health care costs and increase productivity, and smoking cessation programs are increasingly being rolled out as part of an organization’s overall wellness program.

“The key is the culture within that employer’s organization — really taking a top-down approach, having the business owner or CEO promote, champion and buy in to the program,” says Steve Martenet, president of HealthLink.

Employers also need to take a long-term approach to the effectiveness of smoking cessation programs because it is difficult to quit, and payback on the investment won’t happen in the first year. Additionally, the program needs to be tailored to each organization’s unique needs.

Smart Business spoke with Martenet about how to effectively employ smoking cessation programs and how doing so can impact the bottom line.

Why should employers care if employees smoke?

First, they should care from a humanistic standpoint, as caring about whether your employees smoke gets to quality-of-life issues. Smoking is the cause of nine out of 10 deaths from lung cancer, three out of 10 deaths from all cancers, nine out of 10 deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as emphysema, and one out of five deaths from heart disease, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

From a business and cost perspective, there are very real costs in terms of health care and lost productivity as a result of having a work force that smokes. Each smoking employee costs an employer $1,000 per year due to direct medical claims, absenteeism and additional building maintenance, according to National Cancer Institute data.

And when compared to nonsmokers, the Mayo Clinic found in a seven-year study of 30,000 of its workers that the average health care costs of its smoking employees and retirees was $1,275 more per year than those of its nonsmoking employees.

How can employers encourage employees who smoke to quit?

There are steps employers can take to decrease the number of employees who smoke.

  • Educate employees about the dangers of smoking.

  • Create an environment that discourages smoking, which includes not allowing smoking in the building and/or on your property.

  • Offer smoking cessation programs as part of a corporate health and wellness strategy.

What are some best practices for smoking cessation programs?

A number of tools can be used as part of a smoking cessation program, such as:

  • Ongoing support and motivation.

  • Personalized plans to quit.

  • Rewards for participation and achieving milestones.

  • Integrating cessation efforts with health care benefits, such as paying for nicotine replacement therapy.

  • Having customized data that reports on the program’s effectiveness.

Each situation is different, depending on how big an issue smoking is for an employer and on the workplace culture, so use these variables to customize the program to meet your specific needs. With self-funded insurance, it is easier to create unique one-on-one lifestyle management programs. For fully insured employers, some insurance companies will offer — depending on state mandates — smoking cessation as part of wellness programs, either embedded into the basic offering or sold as an add-on or rider.

Many employees won’t quit in the first year, so be persistent. Every year, 17 million adults attempt to quit and only 1.3 million succeed, according to AllOneHealth Group. Smoking cessation programs require a three-year investment to break even, with benefits exceeding costs after five years when it has become ingrained in the culture of that organization.

Are cessation programs more effective than charging smokers more for health insurance?

There is a carrot-and-stick approach, and charging more is certainly a stick approach. However, a lot of employers combine the two approaches because it is easier to charge a smoker more if you are providing them with an opportunity to quit. Employers should consult with corporate attorneys before they differentiate what they charge for smoking and nonsmoking employees, as some state laws may prevent fully insured companies from doing this. In fact, the federal government thinks so much of the practice of differentiating that it is built into the health care reform act.

Smoking employees cost more and from an employer’s perspective, the ability to charge more could help offset that health care cost. Still, the addictive nature of smoking means such penalties are more of an incentive not to smoke than a reason to quit.

How does tobacco use impact employers’ costs?

Tobacco costs the U.S. $96 billion in health care expenditures and another $97 billion in lost productivity each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There is a huge opportunity for employers to find the right smoking cessation program for the organization. There is already incentive for many employees, as studies have found that 68 percent of smokers want to quit.

An example of the impact on cost is Illinois, which recently more than doubled its cigarette taxes. As a result, 72,700 Illinois kids will not become smokers and 53,400 adults will quit, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In Missouri, voters will decide Nov. 6 whether cigarette taxes should be raised by 73 cents. HealthLink supports increasing the state cigarette tax, which is the lowest in the nation at 17 cents. Through the tax code, the health of the community will improve. Employers can do this on a smaller scale through an effective smoking cessation program.

Steve Martenet is president of HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 923-4474 or steve.martenet@wellpoint.com.

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Published in Chicago

Employers — and subsequently, their employees — are becoming more savvy about the decisions involved in choosing and administering a health plan, often a business’s second- or third-biggest cost of operations. Just as safety initiatives can help reduce property and casualty insurance premiums, health insurance savings can often be achieved through self funding, says Mike Debo, senior sales and renewal executive at HealthLink.

“By instituting wellness programs and encouraging routine physicals and post-condition care for not only employees but for covered dependents, employers can reduce premium and claims costs while increasing productivity,” Debo says. “Instituting wellness programs, encouraging routine physicals and promoting post-condition care are especially beneficial to self-funded groups as they see the savings in the form of fewer claims spent, which can reduce reinsurance costs.”

Smart Business spoke with Debo about how increased involvement on the part of employers and employees can lead to lower health plan costs.

What is driving employers to be more involved with their health plans?

For many employers, the No. 1 reason they are becoming more involved is that they have no other option. They may have already maxed out what they can do from a plan design perspective with greater participant out-of-pocket costs. In addition, fully insured employers are constantly getting rate increases, but over the years, often no one has been able to fully explain the increases.

What are some tools an involved and educated employer can use to lower health costs?

An employer’s decisions are only as good as its information. That is why many business owners move into self-funding, where there is greater reporting about their group and its claims, whether medical or pharmacological.

One of the first tools businesses use is to have participant biometric testing, which provides the employer with information on how many people in the group have high cholesterol, hypertension, weight or smoking issues. From that — combined with reporting and claims — employers can create wellness programs and condition management programs. Wellness programs eventually save money from a claims perspective, but it might take a year or two to absorb the initial cost of testing.

With a year’s worth of information from claims and wellness programs, businesses can begin to change their plan design to address health conditions, utilization patterns or provide unique coverage for their plan participants. For instance, a business may find its participants are frequently visiting chiropractors because of their job type. With that information, they can look at not only how many visits they are allowing for chiropractors and the cost but also institute a condition management program strictly for back injury care.

Then, they can look at pharmacy claims. Are participants using generics as often as they can, brand names as necessary or mail order whenever possible? What does the employer need to do regarding the pharmacy benefit to not only ensure that people get the drugs they need but also to make it cost effective for the group?

By changing the plan design and addressing the specific needs of a group, employers often find they don’t need a particular program, such as condition management or a 24-hour nurse line, further cutting costs.

How can employers overcome initial resistance to wellness programs and other initiatives?

Most people aren’t going to participate in biometric testing, a smoking cessation program, a weight loss program or a condition management program unless there are cost differentials to participants in the form of incentives or disincentives. Plan participants often think such programs are an invasion of privacy or that they require too much of a time commitment, but when there is a 10 to 30 percent difference in premium costs, they get involved.

How can employers communicate to employees the true costs of health care?

One of the easiest ways is to use a plan with no co-pays, where everything goes toward deductible/coinsurance, so that participants understand how getting an X-ray at an outpatient facility versus a hospital can mean the difference between a bill of $700 or one of $1,800.

Reporting is extremely important because it provides the knowledge to make wise decisions. Communication is equally important, whether via traditional posters and payroll stuffers or new technology smartphones, emails and blast texting.

To be effective, the communication must address how to get the most out of plan benefits and programs while avoiding unnecessary costs to the participant and the group.

How do self-funded plans give employers so much more control of their health program?

Employers have full control, outside of federal mandates, to do what is best for plan participants and plan costs. For example, if an employer has a population with an average age of 45 and people taking off work for elderly parents going into nursing homes or going to the doctor frequently, the employer can bring in a vendor to work with employees on how to make decisions about their parents. This takes pressure off employees. They show up to work more regularly and are more committed to the company because of the service their employer provided.

With self-funding, it’s at least a three-year commitment of time and effort to cut costs and provide better benefits for employees. The employer has to sit down on a quarterly to semi-annual basis to go through reports and have someone scrutinizing claims. Employers with healthy groups may stay fully insured because they think there is no risk involved, but the risk is that they pay $2 million for something that costs $1.5 million. With self funding, employers have a program that they are in charge of, a program better suited for them and for their plan participants.

Mike Debo is a senior sales and renewal executive at HealthLink. Reach him at (866) 643-7094, ext. 1, or michael.debo@wellpoint.com.

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The Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) mandate, within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, requires insurance companies to spend 80 to 85 percent of premium dollars on medical care and health care quality improvement. This provision just started in August, but how will it impact the insurance industry and employers?

“The MLR Legislation has a perverse incentive; when utilization and costs increase, an insurance company makes more money,” says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management, with HealthLink.

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about what MLR does and the ramifications for health insurance companies, brokers and, ultimately, employers.

How does the MLR mandate work?

Medical loss ratios refer to the percentage of premium dollars an insurance company spends on providing health care and improving the quality of care, versus how much it spends on administrative and overhead costs and, in many cases, salaries or bonuses.

In August, health insurance companies paid $1.1 billion in total rebates to customers when less than 80 percent (for individual and small group markets) to 85 percent (for large group markets) of premiums were not used for health care costs. Approximately 31 percent of Americans with individual insurance got the rebate, with an average check of $127, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rebates went directly to businesses that sponsor their own plans and they decided whether to distribute them or put the funds toward lowering future premium costs.

Why does MLR create a problem for insurance companies and, subsequently, employers?

Many insurance companies have had to make up a gap of up to 10 percent by balancing their administrative costs in order to pay for overhead, employee salaries, etc., and to run their business. In the individual market, for example, typically 70 to 85 percent of a premium is used to pay for the claim, according to a 2010 report by the American Academy of Actuaries.

Now, if you are an insurance employer, suddenly you have to spend 85 percent of the premium that you take in on claims. That means that 15 percent is the only bucket of dollars that you have for profit, administration, overhead, etc. So, logically, there are only two ways that insurance companies make more money year over year and increase their profits. They can either reduce their administrative overhead by cutting staff or have a claims increase.

For instance, if your premium was $1,000, $850 goes back to claims and $150 goes to profit and overhead. Let’s say next year your premium is $1,500; now the insurance company has increased its potential for profit by 50 percent — to $225 rather than $150. Artificially increasing utilization isn’t good for our health care system, and increasing premiums wasn’t part of the reform game plan.

The more realistic and impactful method is reduction. Insurance companies are in it to win it; they are not going to sacrifice profits. With insurance companies facing huge budget constraints, what does that mean for employers and their employees? It means a lower level of service because there are fewer people answering phones and less staff to handle claim issues as insurance companies are forced to squeeze their administration expenses.

In addition, employers will want to know if their group is subsidizing other employers. Insurance companies will need to provide information about the cost of claims, how much is being spent administratively and where are the funds going, and how groups compare. The president of an insurance company recently received a call from an employer who was very upset about the payment of his rebate check because he knew that his premiums were artificially high for many years and that he’s been subsidizing other employers.

How have insurance brokers been negatively impacted by MLR?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has decided that agent commissions are not exempt from the administrative calculations. This creates a difficulty because brokers rely on incentives/bonuses from insurance companies to sell their business.

With the MLR mandate, the broker’s commissions have been cut considerably, if not all together. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners recently released a study that reported that a significant number of health insurance companies have reduced commission levels, particularly for the individual market. Brokers and agents are worried that this will run them out of business.

In the era of health care reform, it is important for employers to have consultants to ask questions, which often is the broker’s role and where that person earns his or her 6 to 10 percent fee. This will be even more vital if insurance companies themselves are giving lower service.

Are there other health care solutions not affected by MLR?

Self-funded programs are not held to the MLR and other PPACA mandates. Therefore, consultants who work off commissions could be suggesting self-funding more frequently. If business owners feel their group is not benefiting from MLR requirements, they also could look at self-insured models.

There’s no doubt that the MLR is clearly another driver to push employers to look at alternative methods of health care, including self-funded insurance. This already has been demonstrated by more interest from brokers and others entertaining a self-funded solution; they are not all buying it, but they are all looking at it.


Mark Haegele is a director, sales and account management, with HealthLink. Reach him at mark.haegele@healthlink.com or (314) 753-2100.

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Published in Chicago

More than 145 million people — or nearly half of all Americans — live with a chronic condition, according to Johns Hopkins University. That number is projected to increase by more than 1 percent each year through 2030, resulting in a chronically ill population of an estimated 171 million.

So what does this mean for employers that are already struggling to control health care costs?

“There are 29 chronic illnesses that make up 80 percent of all health plan costs,” says Mark Haegele, director, sales and account management, with HealthLink. “The problem is that, with a typical health plan, you are only managing five to seven of those diseases, reaching a significantly smaller component of the population.”

Smart Business spoke with Haegele about how to remove barriers to chronic illness compliance and manage health care costs.

How are chronic diseases typically managed?

Chronic disease management may include an evidence-based care treatment plan, with regular monitoring that follows guidelines developed by the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and others, coordination of care among providers, medication management, and measuring care quality and outcomes.

How do chronic illnesses exponentially affect employee health insurance costs?

Patients with chronic conditions often are required to take one or more medications indefinitely. The combination of dormant symptoms, coupled with long-term treatment, means that patients don’t always follow the recommended daily regime for disease maintenance. If employees don’t manage chronic illness by following treatment protocols, they may end up in the emergency room or hospital, spending more on health care costs than if they had spent money to stay in compliance through testing and medication.

With the way the health care system is structured, a patient does not know the ultimate cost of going to a doctor. Months later, he or she will get a bill in the mail — hopefully with a corresponding explanation of payment from the insurance company — that might be for $50 or $250. This uncertainty can keep patients with chronic diseases from following wellness and disease management.

In addition, failing to manage chronic illness correctly can lead to complications, which increases costs. A University of Chicago study found that three out of five patients with Type 2 diabetes suffer from at least one significant complication, such as heart disease, stroke, eye damage, chronic kidney disease or foot problems. Consequently, the yearly medical expenses of a person with Type 2 diabetes complications are nearly $10,000, with nearly $1,600 paid out of pocket.

What challenges do employers face with chronic illness compliance?

There can be challenges with many fully insured health plans because benefit designs are limited to support chronic illness compliance. Most health benefit plans have an optional disease management program that impacts 5 to 9 percent of chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The problem is that many more types of chronic illnesses drive up health care costs, and the benefit design doesn’t change to support the highest chronic disease prevalence among your specific employees. In addition, a voluntary program won’t necessarily reach the employees who are increasing costs the most.

It takes time to change employee behavior. Even with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, under which companies have been paying for 100 percent of preventive care such as immunizations and mammograms, there hasn’t been an uptick in services.

How can employers use value-based benefit plans to increase chronic illness compliance?

Traditionally, employers try to save money on health insurance plans by shifting costs to employees and encouraging generic medicine use. Now, some are lowering or eliminating copayments on medications to encourage adherence to regimens through value-based benefit design.

Companies can use a series of incentives and disincentives to shape employee behavior. For example, smokers may have to pay a higher premium than nonsmokers, and employees who undergo a biometric screening each year could qualify for a plan with better benefits.

This is where the flexibility of a self-funded plan can help. If a company has a disproportionate number of diabetics, it can design its health plan to remove barriers to following a health treatment plan by taking steps such as fully paying for diabetic test strips. In addition, an employer can fluctuate employee members between plan levels based on their compliance throughout the year, rewarding good health practices with better benefits.

In a recent study of a 30,000-member business coalition in Clinton, Ill., of 250 diabetics studied, those who followed a value-based benefit plan with aligned incentives had health costs that were half those of other diabetics.

How can employers ensure that adding health care costs by lowering or eliminating copayments saves money?

You can hire professional consultants to evaluate health plan vendors, but effective communication is critical. When looking at programs, those with motivational coaching are the most effective. They get employees on board by motivating them as opposed to informing them of a checklist, then calling to ask why they aren’t following it. In addition, the program should also be communicating both with the member and primary care doctor.

You need to understand your health care population and then monitor progress monthly, quarterly or yearly to see your return on your investment. One self-funded program found that more than 90 percent of the population identified with high cholesterol had gotten cholesterol levels down to normal following a value-based health plan that ultimately lowers overall health care costs.

Mark Haegele is a director, sales and account management, with HealthLink. Reach him at (314) 753-2100 or mark.haegele@healthlink.com.

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