Original article: https://ebn.benefitnews.com

By Kathleen Koster

With full implementation of health care reform marching along, the landscape of employer-sponsored health benefits will never be the same. As employers turn to private and public exchanges beginning in 2014 as allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the purpose for and implementation of worksite wellness programs also are likely to change.

Dr. Matthew Liss, East Coast medical director of NBCUniversal Health Services, fears that employers may not see wellness as their responsibility or employees will be less engaged in wellness initiatives because employers won’t work as closely with vendors in the exchange.

Employers may not have access to health data as in the past, which could influence their investment in wellness programs, as well as impact incentives for healthy behavior. Liss points to premium reductions for nonsmokers or incentives for going to the gym that are currently offered by working hand in hand with health care providers. Employers may lose this ability to work with vendors while developing wellness incentives if employees receive coverage through a public or private exchange.

Certain populations could lose out

Bryce Williams, the president and CEO of Extend Health, Inc., which operates the nation’s largest private exchange recently acquired by Towers Watson, believes that the most likely demographic to move employees into public exchanges would be small employers with 500 or fewer employees. Employers in this situation would be more likely to stop providing or lessen wellness services to workers than those entering private exchanges, he says.

In general, small employers don’t have data to show them the best practices in wellness programs, explains Dave Ratcliffe, a principal at Buck Consulting. This could remain the case for small employers whose workers enter the public marketplaces. Ratcliffe adds that the more employers measure their initiatives, the more investment they make into wellness.

In the retail industry, where part-time workers outnumber full-time workers, some employers will reframe their total reward strategy for a post-2014 health care reform world. Some of Ratcliffe’s clients in this sector are considering restructuring jobs and recalibrating total remuneration in order to attract, retain and motivate the workforce. For example, he says an employer may limit part-time workers to clock fewer than 30 hours each week, while rewarding top talent with over 30 hours of scheduled work so they can receive the best health benefits as defined under PPACA. While such a workforce restructuring may require more part-time employees who work under 30 hours per week, this framework could be a motivational carrot to drive talent.

Instead of developing wellness programs exclusively to drive down the health cost curve, employers will use wellness to improve population health and the overall productivity.

“Even if your employees are getting coverage through the exchange now, you want to make sure that they are healthy because a healthier employee is a more productive employee,” says Julie Stich, research director at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Williams adds that large employers could leverage any savings they absorb through an exchange setup by reinvesting them into employees, especially into their wellness component.

Giving up a global edge?

According to a recent report from Buck Consultants, 87% of global employers recognize managing employee health as their responsibility in 2012, up from 75% in 2010. Further, 49% of multinational employers now have global health promotion strategies, up from 34% in 2004.

Based on these results, employers believe they need a healthy and productive workforce to have an edge in a global economy.

“If you look globally, the universal responses from all of the countries that productivity and reducing presenteeism was the No. 1 goal for their wellness program, [whereas] for U.S. companies, the No. 1 goal is reducing health care costs,” Ratcliffe says. For most employers outside the U.S., employees receive coverage from a government-sponsored system, yet they continue to view wellness initiatives as paramount to driving a profit.

Further, the 2014 reinsurance tax (which could increase employers’ health insurance costs by 1-2%), a looming 2018 excise tax, mandated benefits and auto-enrollment could all cause employers to consider shifting cost downward and investing more into wellness. In recent years, plan sponsors have managed a 5% trend rate by predominantly cutting benefits or cost-shifting. “From an attraction and retention standpoint, how much more can we afford to continue to cut benefits? So we’re left with wellness to manage costs instead of shifting costs,” says Ratcliffe.

In the new health care reform environment, Ratcliffe believes incentives and disincentives will play an even larger role in motivating employees to participate and succeed in wellness. PPACA permits an increase of allowable incentive dollars from 20% to 30%, and more employers are using outcomes-based incentives to drive results.

Overall, the U.S. spends roughly 18% of their total GDP on health care, while the rest of the world spends 9.5% on average. However the U.S.’s average rate of obesity is nearly double the rest of the world’s (28% compared to 15%), according to 2012 OECD health data.

“Regardless of health care reform, we’re not going to be able to compete in the future without making a change,” says Ratcliffe.

Vendor relationships also will morph

The private exchange market, whether insured or self-funded, will function more like a group exchange, where the employer contracts with the exchange instead of sending people individually to a public exchange. For these private exchanges, “employers are not losing access to that data because they are still in a group world in 2014,” Ratcliffe explains.

Public exchanges may tell a different story. Employers won’t get data for people sent to public exchanges, but Ratcliffe doesn’t expect many employers will go this route initially in 2014. Farther down the road when there’s a viable individual market similar to Medicare, vendor relationships may change.

Employers’ relationships with health vendors, in addition to how they measure and run wellness programs, are sure to change in coming years as employers consider private and public exchanges as options to provide insurance coverage to workers. It remains to be seen how exchanges will change wellness initiatives, but it’s clear that wellness programs will always be a business imperative to keep workers healthy, productive and satisfied with their employer.