New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs

For many Americans, direct primary care has taken control of medical costs, which has cut through many frustrating options and has created a peach of mind when it comes to both health and its costs. Read this blog post to learn more


As an employee benefits attorney and compliance consultant, last summer’s executive order on “improving price and quality transparency in American healthcare to put patients first” piqued my interest. In particular, I honed on in section 6(b), aimed at treating expenses related to direct primary care arrangements as eligible medical expenses.

As someone dealing with a complicated medical history, digging into the order and digesting the resultant proposed IRS rule was more than my job – it was and is part of my life.

Several years ago, I decided to give direct primary care a try. For about $100 a month, I gained direct access to and the undivided attention of a physician who knows me and my unique medical needs. I pay a flat, upfront fee and my doctor coordinates and manages my treatment, which isn’t always smooth sailing for someone dealing with a complex connective tissue disorder. My primary care physician serves as the coach and quarterback of my medical care, directing tests, meds, and visits to various specialists like rheumatologists or neurologists. If I have a common cold or infection, she’s readily available to prescribe treatment and set my mind at ease.

Since arriving on the scene in the 2000s, direct primary care has grown in popularity and availability. In the age of skyrocketing monthly premiums and a multitude of confusing options, more Americans are flocking to direct primary care to supplement their existing coverage. Some employers are even looking at it to drive down costs.

Now, direct primary care only covers, well, primary care, so I’ve paired it with a high-deductible healthcare plan and a health savings account to pay for my many additional medical expenses. I’m not alone: more than 21 million Americans are following the same path.

However, rather than making direct primary care more accessible, the proposed regulations actually make it virtually impossible for all of us with HSAs. Remember, by law, to qualify for an HSA, individuals must be covered by a high deductible health insurance plan. The rationale for this is consumers with more on the line are more responsible in controlling their health care costs and thus rewarded with the tax-advantaged benefits of an HSA.

Here’s the problem: the proposed regulations define direct primary care as a form of insurance – one that is not a high-deductible health plan and would therefore disqualify me from having access to an HSA.

Regulators point out that direct primary care arrangements provide various services like checkups, vaccinations, urgent care, lab tests, and diagnostics before the high deductible has been satisfied. According to the preamble to the proposed regulations, “an individual generally is not eligible to contribute to an HSA if that individual is covered by a direct primary care arrangement.”

Keep in mind, 32 states consider direct primary care a medical service rather than a health plan and exempt it from insurance regulation. Even the Department of Health and Human Services shares that view, noting in a March 12, 2012, final exchange rule that “direct primary care medical homes are not insurance.” In addition, the proposed rule itself includes some contradictory language and implications when it comes to defining direct primary care relating to other factors.

By its very nature, direct primary care is a contract between patient and physician without billing a third party. In cutting out the insurance companies, it seems obvious that direct primary care is not a competing insurance plan, but instead, a valuable service that can accompany existing coverage.

Furthermore, there is no clear justification for painting direct primary care as disqualifying medical insurance for those with HSAs. The IRS has more than enough flexibility and discretion to determine that direct primary care does not count as insurance. Regulators could do so while still treating direct primary care as a tax-deductible medical expense, which seems to be the intention of the proposed rule in the first place.

For millions of Americans, direct primary care has been a godsend in taking control of medical care, cutting through frustrating options, and gaining peace of mind when it comes to both health and healthcare costs. In short, direct primary care is everything primary care should be and was supposed to be. It’s an option that individuals should be permitted to access to complement (not compete with) high deductible health insurance plans and HSAs.

Although the comment period for the proposed regulations is now over, I am hopeful with a few tweaks and small changes they can better align with the stated purpose of the executive order, empowering patients to choose the healthcare that is best for them. If not, the new rules would likely be a hard pill to swallow for the entire direct primary care community.

SOURCE: Berman, J. (26 August 2020) "New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/new-direct-primary-care-rules-are-a-tough-pill-for-hsas


8 renewal considerations for 2020

Are you prepared for open enrollment 2020? With renewal season quickly approaching, plan administrators have a lot of considerations to make regarding employee health plans. Read the following blog post from Employee Benefit News for eight things to consider this year.


The triumphant return of the Affordable Care Act premium tax (the health insurer provider fee).

This tax of about 4% is under Congressional moratorium for 2019 and returns for 2020. Thus, fully insured January 2020 medical, dental and vision renewals will be about 4% higher than they would have been otherwise. Of note, this tax does not apply to most self-funded contracts, including so-called level-funded arrangements. Thus, if your plans are presently fully insured, now may be a good time to re-evaluate the pricing of self-funded plans.

Ensure your renewal timeline includes all vendor decision deadlines.

As the benefits landscape continues to shift and more companies are carving out certain plan components, including the pharmacy benefit manager, you may be surprised with how early these vendors need decisions in order to accommodate benefit changes and plan amendments. Check your contracts and ask your consultant. Further, it seems that our HRIS and benefit administration platforms are ironically asking for earlier and earlier decisions, even with the technology seemingly improving.

Amending your health plan for the new HSA-eligible expenses.

In July of this year, the U.S. Treasury loosened the definition of preventive care expenses for individuals with certain conditions.

While these regulations took effect immediately, they won’t impact your health plan until your health plan documents are amended. Has your insurer or third-party administrator automatically already made this amendment? Or, will it occur automatically with your renewal? Or is it optional? If your answer begins with “I would assume…,” double-check.

Amending your health plan for the new prescription drug coupon regulations.

As we discussed in July of this year, these regulations go into effect when plans renew in 2020. In short, plans can only prevent coupons from discounting plan accumulators (e.g., deductible, out-of-pocket maximum) if there is a “medically advisable” generic equivalent.

If your plan is fully insured, what action is your insurer taking? Does it seem compliant? If your plan is self-funded, what are your options? If you can keep the accumulator program and make it compliant, is there enough projected program savings to justify keeping this program?

Is your group life plan in compliance with the Section 79 nondiscrimination rules?

A benefit myth that floats around from time to time is that the first $50,000 in group term life insurance benefits is always non-taxable. But, that’s only true if the plan passes the Section 79 nondiscrimination rules. Generally, as long as there isn’t discrimination in eligibility terms and the benefit is either a flat benefit or a salary multiple (e.g., $100,000 flat, 1 x salary to $250,000), the plan passes testing. Ask your attorney, accountant, and benefits consultant about this testing. If you have two or more classes for life insurance, the benefit is probably discriminatory. If you fail the testing, it’s not the end of the world. It just means that you’ll likely need to tax your Section 79-defined “key employees” on the entire benefit, not just the amount in excess of $50,000.

Is your group life maximum benefit higher than the guaranteed issue amount?

Surprisingly, I still routinely see plans where the employer-paid benefit maximum exceeds the guaranteed issue amount. Thus, certain highly compensated employees must undergo and pass medical underwriting in order to secure the full employer-paid benefit. What often happens is that, as benefit managers turnover, this nuance is lost and new hires are not told they need to go through underwriting in order to secure the promised benefit. Thus, for example, an employee may think he or she has $650,000 in benefit, while he or she only contractually has $450,000. What this means is the employer is unknowingly self-funding the delta — in this example, $200,000. See the problem?

Please pick up your group life insurance certificate and confirm that the entire employer-paid benefit is guaranteed issue. If it is not, negotiate, change carriers, or lower the benefit.

Double-check that you haven’t unintentionally disqualified participant health savings accounts (HSAs).

As we discussed last December, unintentional disqualification is not difficult.

First, ensure that the deductibles are equal to or greater than the 2020 IRS HSA statutory minimums and the out-of-pocket maximums are equal to or less than the 2020 IRS HSA statutory maximums. Remember that the IRS HSA maximum out-of-pocket limits are not the same as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) out-of-pocket maximum limits. (Note to Congress – can we please align these limits?)

Also, remember that in order for a family deductible to have a compliantly embedded single deductible, the embedded single deductible must be equal to or greater than the statutory minimum family deductible.

Complicating matters, also ensure that no individual in the family plan can be subject to an out-of-pocket maximum greater than the ACA statutory individual out-of-pocket maximum.

Finally, did you generously introduce any new standalone benefits for 2020, like a telemedicine program, that Treasury would consider “other health coverage”? If yes, there’s still time to reverse course before 2020. Talk with your tax advisor, attorney, and benefits consultant.

Once all decisions are made, spend some time with your existing Wrap Document and Wrap Summary Plan Description.

For employers using these documents, it’s easy to forget to make annual amendments. And, it’s easy to forget, depending on the preparer, how much detail is often in these documents. For example, if your vision vendor changes or even if your vision vendor’s address changes, an amendment is likely in order. Ask your attorney, benefits consultant, and third party administrators for help.

SOURCE: Pace, Z. (Accessed 9 September 2019) "8 renewal considerations for 2020" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/healthcare-renewal-considerations-for-2020


Federal Appeals Court Takes Up Case That Could Upend U.S. Health System

A federal appeals court in New Orleans has taken up a case against the Affordable Care Act. If the lower court's ruling in the case, Texas v. United States, is upheld, it has the potential to shake the nation's health care system. Read this article to learn more about this case.


The fate of the Affordable Care Act is again on the line Tuesday, as a federal appeals court in New Orleans takes up a case in which a lower court judge has already ruled the massive health law unconstitutional.

If the lower court ruling is ultimately upheld, the case, Texas v. United States, has the potential to shake the nation’s entire health care system to its core. Not only would such a decision immediately affect the estimated 20 million people who get their health coverage through programs created under the law, ending the ACA would also create chaos in other parts of the health care system that were directly or indirectly changed under the law’s multitude of provisions, such as calorie counts on menus, a pathway for approval of generic copies of expensive biologic drugs and, perhaps most important politically, protections for people with preexisting conditions.

“Billions of dollars of private and public investment — impacting every corner of the American health system — have been made based on the existence of the ACA,” said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by a bipartisan group of economists and other health policy experts to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Upholding the lower court’s ruling, the scholars added, “would upend all of those settled expectations and throw healthcare markets, and 1/5 of the economy, into chaos.”

Here are five important things to know about the case:

It was prompted by the tax bill Republicans passed in 2017.

The big tax cut bill passed by the GOP Congress in December 2017 eliminated the penalty included in the ACA for failure to maintain health insurance coverage. The lawsuit was filed in February 2018 by a group of Republican attorneys general and two governors. They argued that since the Supreme Court had upheld the ACA in 2012 specifically because it was a valid exercise of Congress’ taxing power, taking the tax away makes the entire rest of the law unconstitutional.

Last December, Judge Reed C. O’Connor agreed with the Republicans. “In some ways the question before the court involves the intent of both the 2010 and 2017 Congresses,” O’Connor wrote in his decision. “The former enacted the ACA. The latter sawed off the last leg it stood on.”

State and federal Democrats are defending the law.

Arguing that the rest of the law remains valid is a group of Democratic attorneys general, led by California’s Xavier Becerra.

“Our argument is simple,” said Becerra in a statement last Friday. “The health and wellbeing of nearly every American is at risk. Healthcare can mean the difference between life and death, financial stability and bankruptcy. Our families’ wellbeing should not be treated as a political football.”

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has also been granted “intervenor” status in the case.

The Trump administration has taken several positions on the lawsuit.

The defendant in the case is technically the Trump administration. Traditionally, an administration, even one that did not work to pass the law in question, defends existing law in court.

Not this time. And it is still unclear exactly what the administration’s position is on the lawsuit. “They have changed their position several times,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters on a conference call Monday.

When the administration first weighed in on the case, in June 2018, it said it believed that without the tax penalty only the provisions most closely connected to that penalty — including requiring insurers to sell policies to people with preexisting conditions — should be struck down. The rest of the law should stay, the Justice Department argued.

After O’Connor’s ruling, however, the administration changed its mind. In March, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said it had “determined that the district court’s comprehensive opinion came to the correct conclusion and will support it on appeal.”

Now it appears the administration is shifting its opinion again. In a filing with the court late last week, Justice Department attorneys argued that perhaps the health law should be invalidated only in the GOP states that are suing, rather than all states. It is unclear how that would work.

Legal scholars — including those who oppose the ACA — consider the case dubious.

In a brief filed with the appeals court, legal scholars from both sides of the fight over the ACA agreed that the lawsuit’s underlying claim makes no sense.

In passing the tax bill that eliminated the ACA’s tax penalty but nothing else, Congress “made the judgment that it wanted the insurance reforms and the rest of the ACA to remain even in the absence of an enforceable insurance mandate,” wrote law professors Jonathan Adler, Nicholas Bagley, Abbe Gluck and Ilya Somin. Bagley and Gluck are supporters of the ACA; Adler and Somin have argued against it in earlier suits. “Congress itself — not a court — eliminated enforcement of the provision in question and left the rest of the statute standing. So congressional intent is clear.”

It could end up in front of the Supreme Court right in the middle of the 2020 election.

Depending on what happens at the appeals court level, the health law could be back in front of the Supreme Court — which has upheld the health law on other grounds in 2012 and 2015 — and land there in the middle of next year’s presidential campaign.

Democrats are already sharpening their rhetoric for that possibility.

“President Trump and Republicans are playing a very dangerous game with people’s lives,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Murphy said he is most concerned that if the lower court ruling is upheld and the health law struck down, Republicans “won’t be able to come up with a plan” to put the health care system back together.

“Republicans tried to come up with a replacement plan for 10 years, and they couldn’t do it,” he said.

SOURCE: Rovner, J. (9 July 2019) "Federal Appeals Court Takes Up Case That Could Upend U.S. Health System" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/federal-appeals-court-takes-up-case-that-could-upend-u-s-health-system/


Creating an ‘urgent care first’ mindset for employee benefits

With urgent cares continuing to pop up everywhere, it’s important to guide your employees in adopting an "urgent care first" mentality. Continue reading this blog post to learn more.


Urgent care centers are popping up everywhere, which means getting quick healthcare is easier and more convenient for patients. But these centers could also help employers minimize expensive emergency room claims. That’s why it’s important to guide employees to adopt an “urgent care first” mentality.

The concept of urgent care has been around since the 1970s, but rising healthcare costs, especially for ER care, have spurred an increase in centers across the U.S. over the last decade. In fact, from 2014 through June 2017, the number of urgent care centers rose by nearly 20%.

Urgent care centers provide care for health problems that aren’t life-threatening, but can’t wait for an appointment with a primary care provider. No one wants to suffer with a sore throat all weekend. Many urgent care centers are staffed with doctors and nurses, and provide more advanced capabilities than what’s typically available at a primary care doctor’s office. For example, some urgent care centers give stitches, provide X-rays and even MRIs.

Patients can also get treatment at urgent care for conditions they’d typically see a primary care doctor for, such as the flu or a fever, mild to moderate asthma, skin rashes, sprains and strains, and a severe sore throat or cough — illnesses that produce unnecessary high claims if treated in an ER.

Still, when a severe sore throat and high fever strike on a weekend and the doctor’s office is closed, employees may gravitate to the ER because they’re sick and need help right now. That’s where the urgent care first mindset becomes good medicine. It typically costs the employer (and often the employee) far less if that sore throat is treated in an urgent care facility.

The high cost of ER care is enough to make anyone run a high temp. From 2009 to 2016 (the most recent data available), the average amount that hospitals billed insurance carriers for an emergency room visit more than doubled, from $600 to $1,322. By contrast, urgent care typically costs about $150 per visit. Members often pay a lower copay for urgent care visits, too.

The urgent care first mindset is starting to take hold. New data analysis from Aetna shows that as urgent care centers began to proliferate, ER visits for minor health issues dropped 36%, while the use of urgent care and other non-emergency health settings increased 140%.

However, the same study shows that plans only saw a decrease in ER visits if there were several urgent care centers in the geographic region where their employees lived. Awareness is key.

Fostering an urgent care first mentality

Employers can’t just include urgent care in a benefits plan and expect employees to use it. They need to design the plan to encourage use and follow up with plenty of education.

Education about the benefits of primary care versus urgent care versus the ER should take place during open enrollment and throughout the plan year so members understand the medical necessity and financial implications of each option. Including the closest urgent care centers to employees, as well as a list of services they provide, can help encourage them to adopt an urgent care first mentality.

A word of caution: not every nearby urgent care center is actually in-network. It literally pays for employees to keep a list of nearby in-network centers handy when that inevitable weekend sore throat strikes.

Reminders about urgent care before spring allergies, summer vacations, fall school physicals and flu season can also help encourage their use.

The too-low ER copay

Plan design is another important piece of the puzzle to help steer employees to the right level of care for their needs. It’s not that unusual to see a $100 copay for an emergency department visit. While no one wants to discourage ER visits for true emergencies, it makes sense to adjust the plan design to encourage primary and urgent care visits instead. That may mean a $20 copay for primary care, a $40 copay for urgent care and a $200 to $250 copay for ER visits — which is waived if the plan participant is admitted to the hospital.

For high-deductible health plans paired with a health savings account, the savings can be even more drastic; patients may pay $200 for an urgent care visit versus $1,200 for an ER visit.

The combination of education and plan design can help curb unnecessary ER visits, which could help employers control healthcare increases from plan year to plan year. For health issues that crop up during off hours, the urgent care first mindset is good for both employers and employees, who will ultimately save time and money.

SOURCE: O'Conner, P. (5 July 2019) "Creating an ‘urgent care first’ mindset for employee benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/creating-an-urgent-care-first-mindset-for-employees


Here’s how to ensure employees know how to pick the right benefits

Open enrollment is an important time for employees, but it's often a stressful one as well. According to recent research, the average employee spends less than 30 minutes selecting their benefits. Read this blog post for more on communicating benefit options to employees.


Annual enrollment is an important time for employees — but it’s also a stressful one. The choices they make can affect their financial health, yet the average employee spends less than 30 minutes selecting their benefits, according to research from benefits provider Unum.

With annual enrollment planning underway, now is the time for employers to ask themselves, “How can we help employees make the right benefits decisions?” The answers may be more valuable than they think.

See Also: Ideas for Effectively Demonstrating Plan Choices

Today’s workforce is the most diverse in history, with four generations actively working, and a fifth connected through benefits and pensions. A robust benefits package is increasingly important for recruitment and retention, challenging employers to provide choices and options that support diverse needs.

About 80% of employees prefer a job with benefits over one with a higher salary but no benefits, according to the American Institute of CPAs. As such it’s vital that employers ensure their workforce is engaged with their benefits and taking full advantage of what is available. Here are five ways employers can make sure that happens.

See Also: Ideas to Help Employees Find their "Best Fit" Plan

1. Acknowledge that decision support addresses personalized needs. Tools that demystify the benefits selection process can help employees make choices that align with their risk tolerance, financial circumstances and unique needs. The best tools lead employees to a recommended suite of benefits options that fit their individual physical, emotional and financial health.

2. Know that year-round engagement improves benefits literacy. While employees appreciate benefits, they aren’t experts. Indeed, roughly one-third of employees are outright confused about their benefits, according to recent data from Businessolver. Keeping up a cadence of communication about benefits throughout the year can help address this challenge.

3. Recognize the power of a total rewards statement. It empowers employees to maximize the benefits available to them, and these tools can be accessed at any time, not just during enrollment. The most impactful solutions aggregate all employee benefits options in one integrated offering that demonstrates the full value of compensation and benefits investments made by them and their employer.

See Also: Communicating the Value of Employee Benefits

4. Think about different generations. Customizable benefits options are a crucial step in meeting the needs of today’s workforce. For example, our latest data shows that nearly two-thirds of millennials are concerned with managing their monthly budget, while over 50% of boomers are most worried about a large, unexpected cost. Having core medical plan offerings along with complementary voluntary options helps employees address varying financial needs. Likewise, paid parental leave and different health plan options assist families at any stage, and they make it likelier that your employees will engage with their benefits and remain with your organization.

5. Be sure employees know that savings vehicles contribute to financial well-being. Employees of all ages and income levels are facing financial stressors — but they may not be the same ones. Offering different financial benefits, such as student loan assistance and emergency savings accounts, in addition to retirement benefits, enables your employees to address both their immediate and long-term financial needs.

See Also: Avoiding Communication Overload During Open Enrollment

More than ever, employers have a responsibility to help employees make informed decisions when it comes to selecting the right benefits. Otherwise, they risk losing top talent to organizations that are better implementing benefits strategies and technologies.

By meeting the needs of a diverse workforce with an array of benefits options supported by appropriate decision support resources, employers can ensure they’re meeting their workforce’s needs and retaining valuable employees.

See Also: Incorporating Incentives to Create Educated Benefit Consumers

SOURCE: Shanahan, R. (26 June 2019) "Here’s how to ensure employees know how to pick the right benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/educating-employees-to-pick-the-right-benefits


Engaging employees in healthcare — even while traveling

In 2018, Americans took 463.6 million trips for business, leaving employees unsure of what to do when they get sick or injured while away. Read this blog post for how employers can engage employees who are traveling in healthcare.


Business travel is booming. Americans took 463.6 million trips for business last year. But what happens when a business traveler gets sick or injured while away from home and how can employers help their employees in this situation?

It starts with a simple solution: Make sure you’re providing employees with a health insurance plan that includes coverage outside the state or region where the business is located. While the majority of plans provide coverage for illnesses and injuries that meet the insurer’s definition of an emergency, some plans don’t cover care for common serious, but non-emergency health problems like strep throat, migraine headaches, a sprained ankle or back pain. Employers should ensure they offer at least one plan option that includes either an extended physician and hospital network or coverage for out-of-network care.

If employees need to travel out of the country for business, employers may want to consider offering travel medical insurance, which provides coverage during the period of time while the employee is outside the U.S. and medical evacuation if needed. To ensure employees have all the immunizations they need and are aware of any health risks at their destinations, employers can offer access to or reimbursement for pre-trip visits with a travel medicine specialist.

Even when employees have health insurance that gives them access to care while they’re away from home, connecting with experienced healthcare providers can still be difficult. Some insurers offer phone support for plan members seeking care providers, although often these providers are not heavily vetted for the experience or providing the highest quality care. Health advisory services can also help employees find and connect with healthcare providers in the U.S. and overseas.

When considering health advisory firms, employers should ask how the firm vets the healthcare providers it connects employees with and whether the firm uses a set network of providers or whether it connects employees with the most appropriate providers regardless of their health system affiliation.

Make sure employees know how to find the right type of care

When an employee falls ill or gets injured while traveling for business, her or his first instinct may be to seek care at a local emergency room, but that’s not always the best option. In addition to long wait times, the cost of care delivered in the emergency room is significantly higher than other care settings.

  • Employers can help employees make better choices by providing information about the options available and how to choose the right care setting:
  • The emergency room for serious, life-threatening illnesses and injuries such as chest pain, symptoms of a stroke, serious burns, head injury or loss of consciousness, eye injuries, severe allergic reactions, broken bones and heavy bleeding
  • An urgent care center for conditions you’d usually make a doctor’s appointment for such as vomiting or diarrhea, fever, sprains, moderate flu symptoms, small cuts, wheezing and dehydration
  • A walk-in or retail clinic for minor problems such as a rash with no fever, mild flu-like symptoms, sore throat, cough and congestion, ear pain and eye itchiness or redness
  • Telemedicine or virtual physician visits for minor illnesses and injuries and advice on whether additional care is needed

The key to helping employees know which care setting is the most appropriate is ongoing communication and education, which can take the form of in-person meetings with the benefits team, newsletter articles and email blasts, and video content shared through the company’s intranet channels.

Employees who are living with chronic health conditions should take special steps when traveling for business, including ensuring they have enough of any prescription medication they take and bringing an extra prescription with them for essential medications in case they’re lost in transit.

Ensure employees can quickly share their medical records with providers

Another important part of the healthcare equation for business travelers is ensuring that when they need care while they’re on the road, the healthcare providers who treat them can get quick, secure access to their medical records. Access to these records is important for several reasons:

  • It gives a provider who’s not familiar with the employee’s medical history a comprehensive look at past and current health problems and chronic conditions, medications, allergies or adverse reactions, and treatments and surgeries. Having this information can lower the risk of misdiagnosis, inappropriate care and duplicate care or testing, which not only adds unneeded costs but can also cause harm.
  • This information can be especially important when employees are seriously ill or injured and can’t speak for themselves to share medical history and their wishes about issues like the use of a ventilator or feeding tube.

There are several online services and apps that allow users to upload medical records so they can share them with healthcare providers. Another option is to work with a health adviser who can make sure employees’ records are carefully reviewed to ensure accuracy and stored in a secure universal medical record that can be accessed in minutes by treating physicians anywhere in the world.

Giving employees who travel for business the right resources and guidance can not only increase their peace of mind, it can help make sure they have access to the care they need wherever work takes them.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (18 June 2019) "Engaging employees in healthcare — even while traveling" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/engage-employees-in-healthcare-when-traveling


Taking the first steps to a long-term benefits strategy

A common struggle for many companies that are searching for a cost-effective, successful employee benefits strategy is that HR professionals and finance professionals have conflicting objectives. Continue reading this blog post to learn more.


The quest for a cost-effective and successful employee benefits program can feel like a search for the Holy Grail. To most, it’s an elusive goal within the context of rising and unsustainable costs.

Unlike “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which a comedy of errors made for a hilarious movie, nonsensical benefits strategies can have serious consequences.

One major challenge is that many HR and finance professionals have conflicting objectives. HR’s mission is to design a program that is competitive in the marketplace for human capital needs while supporting the organization’s culture. Finance, on the other hand, is charged with managing to a budget by controlling expenses to mitigate year-over-year increases. The result, in spite of best intentions, leaves organizations unable to commit to a multi-year plan and opt in favor of living year-to-year.

So, how do you overcome this challenge?

Step 1Key HR and finance stakeholders need to align on goals and objectives. They also need to remain engaged in the process throughout the year (not just at renewal). Once you achieve alignment, these objectives should be memorialized into a benefits philosophy. Why? So the collective team has guiding principles for future decisions.

Step 2: Identify the cost drivers of the program. Many employers have little line of sight into how their plan is performing until it’s too late. Once you are staring down the barrel of a 25% increase, an organization may be forced to make swift changes to soften the blow to their bottom line rather than follow a strategic approach that comes with preparation. Unfortunately, this type of knee-jerk reaction only temporarily relieves the pressure and may create unintended consequences to the employee value proposition.

Step 3Understand where you were, where you are and where you want to be. After 25 years in the consulting industry, one thing I know for certain is there are only so many levers you can pull to rein in escalating benefit costs. Identify the levers and how far you want to pull them.

Step 4: Determine success metrics. I’ve seen many organizations implement new tactics, such as a health savings account. When I ask them if it was successful, they can’t answer because they didn’t set an internal bar for success. That barometer will help you gauge success and determine what changes need to be made to your approach to achieve your goal.

Step 5Commit the plan to writing and review it periodically. Just like your company’s overall business plan, you will need to make adjustments along the way as your business changes.

Regardless of strategy, I recommend employers take steps toward a self-funding benefits model. Historically, self-funding was for groups with 1,000 lives and above. But that’s no longer the case. Self-funding provides that all-important line of sight into cost drivers because of access to claims data. Having a deeper understanding of the “why” behind costs allows an organization to implement a data-driven approach to the overarching benefits strategy. Self-funding also provides more plan design flexibility and eliminates the internal costs that an insurance carrier builds into a plan for profit.

It’s more effective to create a benefits strategy that is sustainable over time, so when you inevitably endure a higher-than-normal renewal cycle, typically every three to five years, you are prepared to stay the course.

Consider timing. When you make changes to a benefit plan is just as important as what changes you make. Evaluate the timing of benefit changes, how they are implemented and how adjustments will impact your workforce now and in the future.

For example, if you plan to add new voluntary benefits, such as indemnity plans, it may make sense to run them “off cycle” from the core medical benefits open enrollment season. This gives employees more time to conduct research about the new product option and make an educated decision.

Strive for simplicity. I can’t stress this enough. The Affordable Care Act, an increase in voluntary benefit options, new funding models and benefit trends have created an enormous amount of noise in the insurance industry. Tune it out and simplify your process as much as you can. Your HR and Finance teams are overwhelmed and so are your employees. Instead of throwing new benefits at them each year, focus on educating them and making choices simple. In fact, any long-term benefits plan worth its weight always includes an education and communications component.

Benefit illiteracy is rampant, and confusion over options at open enrollment can have consequences for the employee throughout the plan year. If your employees choose their benefits online, spend the open enrollment meeting educating them on how to buy and consume insurance, rather than just what the benefit choices are for the plan year, or how to use the online enrollment tool. You should also communicate throughout the year, rather than just at open enrollment to support employees’ understanding of their benefits program.

Identify other areas where employees might struggle. One trend is to offer transparency tools to help them choose a doctor or specialist. But be aware that the sheer number of doctors in a given list can be overwhelming. Rather than offering employees a choice of 50 doctors, narrow it down to five providers with the best healthcare outcomes.

Making it simpler for employees to be better consumers of healthcare will help you cut costs and get on the right path to a long-term benefit strategy. Of course, you’ll have to check in each year and consider making small adjustments to the program, and data will help guide these changes. Adjustments should all be in service of a long-term plan. If you begin your long-term plan by asking the question, “Where were we, where are we now and where do we want to be in the future?” you’re halfway there. You may eventually find that your Holy Grail is within reach.

SOURCE: Bloom, A. (14 May 2019) "Taking the first steps to a long-term benefits strategy" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/taking-the-first-steps-to-a-long-term-benefits-strategy


Digital health revolution: What we’ve learned so far

Digital health devices provide personalized feedback to users, helping improve their health. Continue reading this blog post to learn more about the evolving digital health revolution.


The promise of the digital health revolution is tantalizing: a multitude of connected devices providing personalized feedback to help people improve their health. Yet, some recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of these resources.

While still evolving, many compelling use-cases are starting to emerge for digital health, including a set of best practices that can help guide the maturation of this emerging field. In the near future, many people may gain access to individual health records, a modern medical record that curates information from multiple sources, including electronic health records, pharmacies and medical claims, to help support physicians in care delivery through data sharing and evidence-based guidelines.

As these advances become a reality, here are several digital health strategies employers, employees and healthcare innovators should consider.

Micro-behavior change.

Part of the power of digital health is the ability to provide people with actionable information about their health status and behavior patterns. As part of that, some of the most successful digital health programs are demonstrating an ability to encourage daily “micro-behavior change” that, over time, may contribute to improved health outcomes and lower costs. For instance, wearable device walking programs can remind people to move consistently throughout the day, while offering objective metrics showcasing actual activity patterns and, ideally, reinforcing positive habits to support sustained change. Technology that encourages seemingly small healthy habits — each day — can eventually translate to meaningful improvements.

Clinical interventions.

Big data is a buzz word often associated with digital health, but the use of analytics and technology is only meaningful as part of a holistic approach to care. Through programs that incorporate clinical intervention and support by care providers, the true value of digital health can be unlocked to help make meaningful differences in people’s well-being. For instance, new programs are featuring connected asthma inhalers that use wirelessly enabled sensors to track adherence rates, including frequency and dosage, and relay that information to healthcare professionals. Armed with this tangible data, care providers can counsel patients more effectively on following recommended treatments. Rather than simply giving consumers the latest technologies and sending them along, these innovations can be most effective when integrated with a holistic care plan.

Real-time information.

One key advantage of digital resources, such as apps or websites, is the ability to provide real-time information, both to consumers and healthcare professionals. This can help improve how physicians treat people, enabling for more customized recommendations based on personal health histories and a patient’s specific health plan. For instance, new apps are enabling physicians to know which medications are covered by a person’s health plan and recommend lower-cost alternatives (if available) before the patient actually leaves the office. The ability to access real-time information — and act on it — can be crucial in the effort to use technology to empower healthcare providers and patients.

Financial incentives.

Nearly everyone wants to be healthy, but sometimes people need a nudge to take that first step toward wellness. To help drive that engagement, the use of financial incentives is becoming more widespread by employers and health plans, with targeted and structured rewards proving most effective. From using mobile apps and comparison shopping for healthcare services to encouraging expectant women to use a website to follow recommended prenatal and post-partum appointments, financial incentives can range from nominal amounts (such as gift cards) to hundreds of dollars per year. Coupling digital health resources with financial rewards can be an important step in getting — and keeping — people engaged.

The digital health market will continue to grow, with some studies estimating that the industry will exceed $379 billion by 2024. To make the most of these resources, healthcare innovators will be well served to take note of these initial concepts.

SOURCE: Madsen, R. (14 March 2019) "Digital health revolution: What we’ve learned so far" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/digital-health-revolution-what-weve-learned-so-far?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001


To check or not to check: Managing blood sugar in diabetic employees

There's been a growing prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. over the last 20 years. This chronic condition significantly impacts employees, their family members and even employers clinically and financially. Read this blog post to learn more.


Over the last 20 years, there’s been a growing prevalence in the U.S. of Type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition that significantly impacts employers, their employees and family members clinically, financially and through quality of life. With that comes an increase in the use of insulin for people with Type 2 diabetes to better control blood sugar to reduce long-term complications, which includes eye, kidney and cardiac disease, as well as neuropathic complications.

Most of these patients manage their condition with oral medicines versus insulin, and it’s estimated that 75% of patients with Type 2 diabetes regularly test their blood sugar, even though doing so may not be needed. Blood sugar testing is an important tool in managing diabetes as it can help a patient be more aware of their disease and potentially control it better. But it also can be painful, inconvenient and costly.

Blood sugar testing can be an important tool in managing diabetes, and there are two types of tests. The first is a test conducted at home by the patient that shows the blood sugar at a specific point in time. The second type is called HA1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar control) that shows the average blood sugar over the last two to three months. The value of at-home testing is now thought to be questionable.

In 2012, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute began a study to evaluate the value of daily blood sugar testing for people with Type 2 diabetes not taking insulin. The endpoint for the study was whether there was a difference in HA1c levels for those who did daily testing and those that did not. The conclusion of the study found that there were no significant differences between those two populations.

In response to these findings, the institute developed an initiative called Rethink the Strip that involves stakeholders including primary care practices, healthcare providers, patients, health plans, coalitions and employers. Given the cost for test strips and monitors for patients with Type 2 diabetes who test their blood sugar daily, it’s important to adopt an evidence-based patient-centered approach around the need for and frequency of self-monitoring of blood glucose.

As employees and employers cope with the costs associated with blood sugar testing, there are several strategies that should be considered to better manage this issue. They include:

1. Support shared decision-making. Like all interventions within healthcare, it’s important to weigh both the benefits and the risks of daily blood sugar testing in a thoughtful manner between the patient and their provider.

2. Managed benefit design. Employers should pay for daily blood sugar test strips in cases where it brings value (e.g., Type 1 and Type 2 patients who are taking insulin as well as patients that are either newly diagnosed or are going through a transition period, for example, post hospitalization or beginning a new medication regimen).

3. Involve vendors. To ensure alignment in all messaging to plan members, ask health systems and/or health plans and third-party vendors to align their communication, measurement and provider feedback strategies on when it’s appropriate for daily blood sugar testing.

These strategies can help employees with diabetes understand how their daily activities (nutrition, exercise and stress) and medications impact their condition. This benefits the employee in reaching treatment goals and feeling their best, while also helping employers and employees reduce the need for unnecessary and costly test strips.

SOURCE: Berger, J. (14 March 2019) "To check or not to check: Managing blood sugar in diabetic employees" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/managing-blood-sugar-in-diabetic-employees?brief=00000152-146e-d1cc-a5fa-7cff8fee0000


How employers can take advantage of the best-kept wellness secret

How can you take advantage of insurance companies’ best-kept secret? Some insurance carries pay wellness dollars to companies who implement wellness programs. Read on to learn more.


Did you know some insurance carriers pay companies to implement wellness programs? It’s called wellness dollars, and it is insurance companies’ best-kept secret.

Wellness dollars are a percentage of a company’s premiums that can be used to cover wellness-related purchases. The healthier employees are, the fewer dollars insurance carriers need to pay out for a policy. Many insurers have incentives like wellness dollars for employers to improve the well-being of their workers.

The benefits of adding a wellness program are plenty. These programs typically generate a positive return on investment for companies. Research done by three Harvard professors found that overall medical costs decline $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs. Costs from absenteeism fall about $2.73 for each dollar. Well-designed programs can improve employees’ overall wellbeing and life satisfaction, according to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It’s a new year, and group health insurance plans are starting fresh. Here’s how employers can take advantage of wellness dollars.

Get in touch with your carrier. The first step is to get in touch with your insurance carrier to find out if your self-insured or fully-insured plan covers participatory or health-contingent programs. If you don’t have wellness dollars, it’s still early in the year, and it’s worth negotiating to see if you can include them in your company’s current package.

You will work with your insurance carrier to determine how your wellness dollars can be spent, based on an agreed-upon contract. The amount of wellness dollars that you receive depends on the number of employees and profitability.

Every company is different, so the range of services varies and could include wellness programs, gym memberships, nutrition programs, massages and more. Sometimes incentives for wellness activities can be used; sometimes it can’t. Ask your carrier for a complete list of covered expenses. This will help you as you shop around to find the right offerings. Save receipts and records for reimbursements.

Determine the best use. There are a few ways to determine what offerings you should use for your company. Before making any decisions, ask your employees and the leadership team what type of program they would be most likely to engage in. Gallup named the five elements that affect business outcomes: purpose, social, community, physical and financial. Look for a comprehensive program that includes these five elements, instead of coordinating with multiple vendors. If only a portion of your expenses will be reimbursed, it’s still worth getting a wellness program. They have cost-savings on an individual and team level.

Wellness programs are all about building culture, and with unemployment at a record low, it’s a sticking point to keep employees invested in your company. A few examples of wellness offerings include fitness classes, preventive screenings, on-site yoga, financial wellness workshops, healthy living educational workshops, and health tracking apps.

Once you’ve implemented wellness offerings in your workplace, keep track of your company’s progress. Create a wellness task force, a healthy workplace social group, or conduct monthly survey check-ins to make sure employees are staying engaged. Some wellness programs utilize technology to track participation, integrate with wearables, and report other analytics. Ask your insurance carrier if wellness dollars have flexibility in adding or changing the services throughout the year, based on engagement.

SOURCE: Cohn, J. (14 February 2019) "How employers can take advantage of the best-kept wellness secret" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-employers-can-take-advantage-of-the-best-kept-wellness-secret