Change of plans Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

More than 4.5 million Americans own a Health Savings Account (HSA) — triple the number of just two years ago. One survey estimates that HSA enrollment will increase by 20 percent in the next four years.

“More and more companies will be offering their employees a consumer-directed health plan as one of the benefit choices,” says Robert L. Dawson, president and chief executive officer of HealthAmerica. “Yet, for many employees, consumer-directed health plans are a new and often confusing idea in health coverage.”

Smart Business spoke to Robert L. Dawson, president and chief executive officer of HealthAmerica, about how employers can help ease their workforce into adopting — and embracing — consumer-directed health plans.

What are some issues employers face in introducing consumer-directed health plans?

Consumer-directed health care options involve a greater degree of cost sharing with employees. These plans typically pair a health plan with a high deductible (usually of more than $1,000 for single coverage) with a personal or health savings account. Employees may not like the fact that they have to pay a higher cost for coverage they used to get at little or no personal expense. In addition, employees may not be sure what exactly this role as a ‘more active health care decision-maker’ is all about. They may be confused and more than a little resistant to change.

How do employers tackle these issues?

I can’t emphasize enough the need for ongoing education and communication. An informed and empowered workforce will improve the odds that employees will embrace this different type of health plan. Therefore, it’s important that employers take the time and effort to explain why they are implementing such measures. Employees may not like what they are hearing, but they will appreciate the explanation about why it is necessary.

What should some of the messages be?

Begin by defining health care benefits within the broader context of business. Employees need to understand that rising health care costs will affect the company’s ability to succeed. Let employees know that, although their contributions toward health care premiums are increasing, yours are going up even more. Adopting a policy of ongoing, honest communication can help overcome skepticism, encourage employees to be partners in controlling costs and promote understanding of the changes as a necessary business decision.

What else can employers do to help ensure success?

Successful consumer-directed health plans are supported from the top. Therefore, employers themselves are a key catalyst in driving employee participation. Studies show that employers that contribute to their employees’ health savings accounts achieve higher rates of employee participation than those that don’t. Even if it’s a one-time contribution, it’s better than nothing.

In addition, the plan should be designed to compete effectively with other health plan options. Many employers are implementing consumer-directed plans as full replacement for all coverage choices; others offer them alongside traditional managed care options.

What are some other tactics employers use to help employees feel comfortable with these plans?

Recognize that this type of plan design represents change for employees — in some cases, a significant change. The more prepared they are for the change, the better. Begin a communications effort early, and don’t worry about over-communicating.

Create special, but inexpensive, communication material just for this campaign: employee bulletin boards, newsletters, payroll stuffers, information sessions and your intranet. You may also want to send information to employees’ homes, where it can be shared with a spouse. Encourage two-way communication and invite questions one-on-one so employees can evaluate their own personal situation. It’s important that they understand all their costs and responsibilities so they are not surprised or discouraged after enrollment.

Emphasize and re-emphasize the connections between unhealthy lifestyle habits (such as smoking and obesity) and the dramatic impact such habits can have on health care costs. Reinforce the idea of proactively tackling bad health habits now to deter high medical costs later. The message can be as simple as ‘if you stay healthy, you will preserve more money in your HSA.’ Many health plans offer 100 percent coverage for the cost of approved health education programs like smoking cessation and weight loss — at no cost to the employer.

Lastly, stress to employees that they are not ‘on their own’ after they enroll. Make your human resources staff available to review information and answer questions. Small companies can elicit the help from their health plans. Health insurers, like HealthAmerica, are committed to helping our members feel comfortable with their decision to choose consumer-directed health care and to be smart users of health care services. Our representatives are trained to educate employees about the process and the decision tools available to them.

ROBERT L. DAWSON is president and CEO of HealthAmerica and HealthAssurance. Reach him at (717) 540-6353.