Workforce health management a top cost-control strategy

In my previous post, I brought you up to date on the first of five predictions I made a year ago on trends in occupational health and safety.

Trend 2 relates to performance measurement. I envisioned re-invigorated efforts to develop relevant ways to quantify clinical and financial outcomes associated with early reporting, return-to-work initiatives, quality assurance, regulatory compliance and wellness/health promotion.

I noted that pressure to produce outcome data and engage in benchmarking is increasing in concert with the development of Accountable Care Organizations and the adoption of performance-based compensation and medical fee models. In response to national healthcare reforms, I observed that employers are getting more aggressive about offering plans that encourage employees to take more responsibility for their own health.

This trends remains on my list for 2013. Many employers are just starting to realize the benefits of using automated systems and specialized software to help prevent injury and illness, better manage work restrictions and absence, and comply with training and surveillance requirements.

While all of these factors are important, for this update I’m focusing on just one aspect – wellness. Here are five reasons why:

Reason 1: According to Mercer’s 2012 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, workforce health management, or “wellness,” has emerged as major employers’ top long-term strategy for controlling health spending: 78 percent of respondents from large companies said senior leadership supports health management programs.

Drawing from a national probability sample of public and private companies, the survey response rate was 2,809 employers. Among other interesting findings:

  • The bigger the company, the better its capacity to measure results.
  • Among the 53 percent of respondents with 20,000 or more employees, more than 75 percent reported wellness programs have reduced medical plan costs.
  • 48 percent of large companies with health management programs provide financial incentives or penalties; including non-financial incentives such as recognition or gifts, it’s 54 percent.
  • A reduction in the employee’s premium contribution is the most common incentive for completing a health risk assessment; the median reduction is $260/year.
  • 19 percent of large employers vary the contribution amount based on tobacco use.
  • A growing number of employers provide incentives for hitting (or reasonable attempts to hit) health status targets.

Reason 2: The Wellness Council of America (Welcoa) emphasizes routine use of health and productivity metrics to “capitalize on the opportunity to effectively benchmark.” One way to do this is through the creation of electronic portals through which employee health risk assessment data may be collected and analyzed. Wellness web portal features typically include journaling, educational content and social media connectivity. The next generation blends these features with data analytics, health management and reward program design, Welcoa says.

Reason 3: Immigrants who come to the United States from Mexico arrive with a significant amount of undiagnosed disease, and many of them enter the U.S. workforce. About half of recent Mexican immigrants who have diabetes are unaware they have the disease and about one-third of those with high blood pressure are unaware of the illness, according to findings from a RAND Corporation study published in the December edition of Health Affairs.

Reason 4: In the November edition of Health Affairs,researchers report that 10 modifiable health risk factors are linked to more than a fifth of employer-employee healthcare spending. High risk for depression remained most strongly associated with increased per capita annual medical spending. High blood glucose, high blood pressure and obesity also were strongly related to increased healthcare costs, as were tobacco use, physical inactivity and high stress. The findings indicate ongoing opportunities for well-designed health promotion programs, study authors said.

Reason 5: A multi-employer review of health risk assessment results indicates a savings of $129 for each risk reduced and a cost increase of $210 for each risk added over a year’s time. The study, Association Between Changes in Health Risk Status and Changes in Future Health Care Costs, appears in theNovember 2012 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.The same edition features findings on Workplace Health Promotion Implementation, Readiness and Capacity Among Midsize Employers in Low-Wage Industries. Implementation readiness for employees, their spouses and partners was found to be low.

Next up: Behavioral and mental health trends

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