Regardless of what happens with health care reform, employers must still strive to control the cost of their health benefits. Those costs are driven by the expenses for the care provided to employees and their dependents (about 60% of an employer’s costs are for dependents). The answer to controlling costs then is to control the expenses. What if you could reduce the incidences of high blood pressure by 40% or lower the risk of colon cancer by 60% and the risk of stroke by 27%? What if you could decrease depression without drugs or even therapy? These are figures reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Hidden Benefits of Exercise.” A study at Appalachian State University showed that people who walk briskly for 45 minutes five days a week over 12-15 weeks had fewer and less severe upper respiratory tract infections and their number of sick days were reduced 25% to 50% compared to sedentary workers in the control group.
The evidence seems to indicate that exercise does indeed have its benefits. The trick for employers is to communicate these benefits to their employees and in doing so make the incentives very clear. While it is easy to conclude the value of better health alone should have everyone running to work, apparently that does not happen.
Another approach is to quantify the possible savings to the health benefits plan so that workers not only see real numbers in terms of specific illness that could be avoided but also have a better sense that they indeed have the power to help manage health care costs.
For example, for self-insured employers it is easy to get data showing what the plan spent for the treatment of high blood pressure or diabetes. Let’s say the combined cost for the year was $200,000 while the cost for a group of people who exercised regularly would have been about $120,000. That is a positive story and one that can be expanded to other areas with even more dramatic costs. Creativity in employee communications is inexpensive and a powerful tool in changing attitudes and perhaps behavior. In the above example, the goal is to get employees involved in activities that will lower costs, but even if that is illusive, the secondary message should be “if you don’t like your payroll deduction for health benefit or the increase in premiums, think about that as you sit in front of the TV with a bag of chips.” For smaller, fully insured employers the message can be similar using general cost statistics for the treatment common illnesses that may be favorably impacted by exercise.
The main points to make in the communications are, (1) there is something you can do to help control costs, (2) you have a responsibility to take the appropriate action, (3) don’t blame the insurance company if you don’t like the cost of health benefits and (4) we are all in this together, what we pay for health benefits is the result of the collective actions and experience of all members of the group.
The idea that healthy lifestyles, wellness, and exercise are good for you is not new. Many large employers have invested millions into their programs, but participation levels are never what they should be given the obvious benefits not to mention what needs to be done is free, what is the cost of a good brisk walk? So, if the obvious logic of the situation does not seem to motivate people employers must try other approaches and it all starts with effective, clear, down to earth, personalized (ongoing) communication of the facts, figures and potential benefits. What’s in it for me comes to mind.
The rhetoric associated with health care reform has helped to take our eye off the ball when it comes to health care costs, employers need to refocus their workforce and make it very clear that we have seen the enemy and they are in our mirror.
Before we leave this discussion, let us clear up one further point. Why should the employer be involved at all, why are employee benefits the business of the employer? An employee comes to work each day, does a job for eight hours or so and goes home, it is that simple, right? Wrong, employers want employees on the job, focused, productive and not distracted by any number of problems. Many of those problems are directly related to the employee benefits and other programs provided by the employer. Here is a partial list, illness of the employee or family members, claim or legal problems, money problems, family and marriage problems. None of my business you say; think again because any worker who is facing off the job problems is your problem on the job, that is, when they make it to work.