Lower health care costs: Employers struggle to change employee behavior

Employers are putting the onus on employees to help curb rising health care costs, and the inability to motivate and change employee habits is prompting concern, according to Aon Hewitt, a global human resource consulting and outsourcing business of Aon Corp.

“As employers wrestle with the reality of continued increasing costs, they are ramping up efforts to ensure cost efficiency, including negotiations with insurers, elimination of ineffective programs, and pursuit of new approaches to motivate employees to use cost effective, high quality providers,” Jim Winkler, Large Employer Segment leader in the Health & Benefits Practice with Aon Hewitt, told Insurance Networking News.

In its 2011 Health Care Survey, Aon Hewitt surveyed 1,028 employers nationwide, and discovered that the top health care outcomes that organizations would like to achieve this year are improving employee health habits (56%), lowering the health care cost trend (49%), decreasing worker health risk (44%), increasing participant awareness of health issues (37%) and enhancing participation in health improvement/disease management programs (37%).

This survey suggests that success may be difficult, as 56% of respondents say motivating participants to change unhealthy behaviors is the most significant challenge to accomplishing 2011 health care program goals. This was followed by issues involving reluctance to change (26%), unpredictability of costs (23%), government regulations/compliance (22%) and managing the health of an aging workforce (21%).

Both companies and health insurers have a vested interest in taking a proactive approach to wellness. In particular, the survey revealed that many companies offer disease management (70%), health and wellness improvement (64%) and behavioral health (60%) as key components to health care strategies. In an acknowledgement that more needs to happen to achieve success, many organizations are looking to expand efforts during the next three to five years and implement strategies that focus on total well being to improve physical and mental health (60%), absence management (53%), and integrated safety and health improvement efforts (50%).

“Despite reform, organizations still face rising costs and worsening population health,” says John Zern, Americas Health & Benefits Practice leader with Aon Hewitt. “It’s clear that traditional annual trend mitigation tactics alone won’t work. As a result, leading employers are implementing a ‘house money, house rules’ environment, using a mix of incentives, penalties and targeted messaging to reward healthy behaviors.”

While some companies are budgeting for a medical trend increase during the next four years, many do not have a long-term increase built into their budgets as of yet. Nearly one-third of respondents (30%) have budgeted an annual medical trend increase between 4% and 7% from 2011 to 2015, and 22% have budgeted an increase of more than 8% during that time. Meanwhile, 42% have not built an annual long-term increase into their budget at this point.

“Employers are spending millions of dollars annually on health care, and yet many report they do not have a specific plan for how best to manage that investment,” Winkler says. “Given the risks and opportunities presented by health care reform, it is imperative that employers develop a written strategy for controlling cost and improving health.”

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