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Employers Stress Healthier Habits and Behavior Change in an Effort to Lower Health Care Costs
added: 2011-06-05

Employers are beginning to rely more on employees to stem the tide of rising health care costs, but the inability to motivate and change habits has prompted concern, according to Aon Hewitt, the global human resource consulting and outsourcing business of Aon Corporation.

Aon Hewitt surveyed 1,028 employers nationwide in its 2011 Health Care Survey and found that the top health care outcomes organizations would like to achieve this year are improving employee health habits (56 percent), lowering the health care cost trend (49 percent), decreasing worker health risk (44 percent), increasing participant awareness of health issues (37 percent) and enhancing participation in health improvement/disease management programs (37 percent). This survey suggests that success may be difficult, as 56 percent 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 percent), unpredictability of costs (23 percent), government regulations/compliance (22 percent) and managing the health of an aging workforce (21 percent).

In addition, this survey revealed that many companies offer disease management (70 percent), health and wellness improvement (64 percent) and behavioral health (60 percent) 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 percent), absence management (53 percent), and integrated safety and health improvement efforts (50 percent).

"Despite reform, organizations still face rising costs and worsening population health," said 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 percent) have budgeted an annual medical trend increase between 4 percent and 7 percent from 2011 – 2015, and 22 percent have budgeted an increase of more than 8 percent during that time. Meanwhile, 42 percent 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," notes Jim Winkler, Large Employer Segment leader in the Health & Benefits Practice with Aon Hewitt. "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."

Rewarding & Penalizing Participants

The Aon Hewitt survey also showed that 22 percent of employers will have programs in place by the end of 2011 to reward participants for achieving specific health outcomes, and 10 percent will have similar programs to penalize participants for exhibiting unhealthy behavior. However, by 2016, 64 percent of organizations said they will add programs that reward for good health, while 46 percent said they will add programs that penalize for unhealthy outcomes.

Respondents currently offer incentives to employees for participation in key initiatives, such as biometric screenings (33 percent), health risk assessments (33 percent), wellness programs (31 percent) and tobacco cessation programs (27 percent). Conversely, some employers are imposing a penalty for non-participation in biometric screenings (5 percent), health risk assessments (5 percent), wellness programs (2 percent) and tobacco cessation programs (6 percent).

Money serves as the primary incentive and penalty these employers use to promote employee participation in key programs, including health risk assessments (66 percent have a monetary incentive; 9 percent have a monetary penalty); biometric screenings (65 percent have a monetary incentive; 8 percent have a monetary penalty); disease/condition management (54 percent have a monetary incentive; 9 percent have a monetary penalty); and wellness programs (59 percent have a monetary incentive; 6 percent have a monetary penalty).

"In a challenging economy, organizations are using financial incentives, as a mix of rewards and penalties, to motivate behavior change," said Jennifer Boehm, principal in the Aon Hewitt Health & Benefits Practice, and a project leader for the survey. "However, leading employers also recognize that success requires more than just dollars; those organizations also focus on marketing health improvement services, eliminating barriers to needed care and measuring the impact of specific interventions."

Additional Survey Data

- One-third of organizations currently offer stress reduction programs and 35 percent offer nutrition programs to employees. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of employers have initiatives targeted to employees with chronic conditions (e.g., asthma, diabetes, heart conditions).

- Less than 20 percent of organizations have performance goals tied to wellness success or participation levels, while 49 percent plan to add this type of program in the next three to five years.

- By 2016, 77 percent of employers plan to have targeted communications on their health care programs, based on workforce demographics.

- By 2016, 61 percent of employers plan to use social media to reinforce smart health behaviors and actions with their plan participants.

Source: PR Newswire

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