There has never been a more challenging time for employers dealing with the dual problem of rising health care costs and declining employee health. As such, employers need to be thinking very differently about how they approach health care, says Jim Winkler, a senior vice president and large employer segment leader at Aon Hewitt.

“Employers need to actively, directly and candidly talk with employees about the need to change behaviors for better health,” says Winkler. “You need to build in the right combination of rewards so that employees understand that if they want to spend a large amount of ‘house money’ on health care, they have to follow  ‘house rules.’”

Smart Business spoke with Winkler and John T. Vollmer, senior vice president/local practice leader, Aon Hewitt, about the challenges and solutions surrounding health and benefits, and how to address them.

How can employers begin to have a conversation with employees about health care?

You first have to understand how consumers think about health care. Our Consumer Mindset 2011 research tells us that they understand that the system is broken, they understand the political dynamics and they know what they need to do in terms of health. Everyone knows they shouldn’t smoke, they should eat better and they should exercise. However, the messages that employees react best to are those that make navigating health easier and more personal.

Don’t talk to them about the company’s costs. Instead, talk about how a lack of health may be getting in the way of teaching a grandson baseball. You need to make it meaningful to employees so they understand the results of good health.

You also need to deploy more than just one tactic. You can’t just have a great communications strategy, and you can’t just have a plan design or incentive strategy. With consumer-driven health plans, consumers understand that you want them to be better consumers, but if all you give them is that design mechanism, you’re just going to frustrate them because they don’t understand the cost of specific health services. You have to give them the tools and information to navigate a broken system and help them see how their exposure to potentially higher out-of-pocket costs is going to enable them to make healthier decisions. You have to connect those pieces.

For example, if you have a consumer-driven plan, don’t just put employer money in the savings account. Instead, say, ‘If you complete a health risk assessment and you know your biometrics, then we’ll put money into your account.’ Make it very clear that you want employees to be successful under the benefits plan and to have access to more of the employer’s money, but you need them to do something in exchange.

People don’t always like that, but they can see very clearly how the actions they take can lead to good things and how inaction can result in a less satisfactory benefit plan.

How can an employer target better health for employees?

There are two starting points. First, as an employer, you want to have your arms around your data. Maybe you’ve done a health risk questionnaire and you have medical claims data in such a way that you can stratify it to say that, of the eight greatest risk factors (such as smoking, lack of health screenings, poor diet, etc.) and the 15 most prevalent chronic conditions, these are the ones that are most prevalent in your population. From that, you can target those two or three greatest risk factors that will lead to the best improvement in health status and a lessening of the frequency and severity of chronic disease.

If you don’t have that data because you’re a smaller company or you haven’t performed a health improvement strategy yet and have no real insight into company-specific risks, the three areas to target are poor diet, physical inactivity and lack of health screenings.

Your real opportunity for impact is to get after weight, as more than two-thirds of the U.S. population is either overweight or obese, and physical inactivity. With health screenings, you begin to build a baseline, and the more screenings you do, the more you understand risk in your population. And screenings are an early identifier of risk and disease, so you start to put a dent in high-cost conditions. If people wait until they’re diagnosed, then they’re likely to be on medication for life and have a higher cost outcome.

How do you address concerns about employers being involved in employees’ health care?

As an employer, you have to start with the basic premise that your current cost environment, the way you’re running your benefits program today, is not sustainable. If you’re going to change the status quo, can you continue to do the things you’ve been doing, like plan design changes that shift costs to employees and changing your medical vendor? Is it reasonable to assume the same tactics will produce a different outcome?

No, so you have to take a different approach. There are two paths you can take. One is the path of house money, house rules. Be candid with employees and share that the reason you’re talking to them about their health, and their behavior,  is that you’re spending a lot of money on health care, so the organization has a vested interest in managing health care costs more effectively.

Second, in a challenging global economy, you need a healthy, present, high-performing work force. What percentage of your work force is out because of health issues? What if you could cut that number in half? You add nothing to your payroll costs, you spend less on medical coverage, and you get people back to work who are more productive to the business.

It’s in your best interest to drive business results to spend less on health care and have a healthy work force, and the way you’re going to get that is by engaging people around their health.

Jim Winkler is senior vice president at Aon Hewitt, the global human resource solutions business of Aon plc. Reach him at jim.winkler@aonhewitt.com. John T. Vollmer is senior vice president/local practice leader, Aon Hewitt. Reach him at (314) 719-3834 or john.vollmer@aonhewitt.com.

Insights Risk Management is brought to you by Aon Risk Solutions

Published in St. Louis

Obesity can have a significant impact on employers, in health care and workers’ compensation costs and in lost productivity.

Health care costs for obese employees are as much as 21 percent higher than costs for those at a healthy weight. In addition, overweight or obese full-time workers with other chronic health conditions miss 450 million more days of work each year than healthy workers, costing businesses $153 billion in lost productivity, according to a Gallup poll. When you consider that Centers for Disease Control estimates say that one-third of Americans were obese in 2010 and that six in 10 are overweight, that creates a significant impact on U.S. businesses, says Steve Martenet, president of HealthLink.

“Many Americans receive their health care through their employers, and obesity impacts not only general health care costs but also other costs,” says Martenet.

Smart Business spoke with Martenet about the impact of obesity on businesses and what they can do to combat it.

How can employers begin to combat the obesity epidemic?

Biometrics can provide a snapshot of the health of your employees. If 75 percent of your work force is classified as obese, you are looking at a very different solution than if that were 5 percent. The higher the percentage of obese employees, the more those people are costing your business.

Once you understand how much obesity is potentially costing you, you can determine the best plan of attack to try to manage that. It starts with creating a culture around general health and wellness and fitness, and a culture around transparency in which employees know how much benefits actually cost — just not what the co-pay is — and then create awareness around what employees can try to do to positively impact those costs.

How can biometrics help improve health?

It’s a matter of education. Once they understand where they are in terms of BMI and their health conditions, it’s easier to get people to adopt certain behaviors and take steps to address those conditions. Biometrics lets them know what shape they are in and allows them to understand what they need to start doing to take control of and improve their overall health. If people know they have a certain BMI and understand what that will mean in 10 or 15 years, they may be more willing to take actions today to address that so they will be healthier in the longer term. Being healthier will ultimately cost them, and their employer, less in premiums for health insurance.

How can employers make employees care about costs associated with obesity?

Educate them about how health care is financed, how much employers are paying in premiums and that premium costs are tied to claims. The more claims a company has due to unhealthy lifestyles and obesity, the more you’re going to pay in premiums, which is potentially less that employees have to take home in disposable income. That makes it real that there is a dollars and cents impact on employees.

Educate them through meetings, e-mails or brown bag lunches. Another effective way is a quarterly statement that shows employees their total compensation package: This is cash compensation, this is vacation compensation, this is how much your health insurance premium is, this is how much goes to the 401(k). Then they get a total picture of what that employer is funding.

Once they understand how much the employer is really paying for health insurance you can start educating them on what drives that premium. That presents opportunities to make real changes in their personal behavior, managing chronic conditions and improving their lifestyle. They can see that what they do is directly related to premium costs and their overall compensation. If one segment of the pie gets too big, other segments — such as pay or 401(k) contributions — get smaller

How can you encourage employees to participate in wellness programs?

Employees are more likely to buy in to an employee-led initiative if they have a hand in creating the program. That said, however, you have to lead by example. If management is not involved, it’s easy for front-line associates to not take it seriously. Executives have to be part of the health screenings and be active in their participation in the program.

How does obesity impact workers’ compensation costs?

Obese workers are more prone to injuries on the job, and it takes longer for them to recuperate from those injuries, driving up workers’ compensation costs.

According to a Duke University survey, employees with a BMI of 40 or higher had 11.65 claims per 100 full-time employees, at an average cost of $51,091 per claim and 183 lost work days. Employees with a healthy BMI had 5.8 claims per 100 employees, at an average cost of $7,503 and 14.19 lost days. When you look at the numbers, they are staggering.

How can childhood obesity impact employers’ costs?

In much the same way that employees do. Medical costs for obese children are higher, and if they have health problems, that leads to lost productivity for the parent. If a parent is at work and worried about an obese child and the social ramifications of obesity, they are not truly focused on what they need to be doing at work. It’s a little more difficult to address, because what you do in the workplace may not make it home.

However, employers can offer educational materials that go down to the child’s level about eating healthy. Employers also have the option of purchasing wellness products built around creating a culture of health.

Ask your health plan administrator what services it offers around health and wellness to help create a culture of health and wellness in the organization.

Steve Martenet is president of HealthLink. Reach him at (800) 624-2356 or SMartenet@healthlink.com.

Published in Chicago