Kip Soteres

Supporting Employees With Different Levels of Health Care Needs

Small business health insurance works best when it’s able to support employees needing different levels of health care. Combine the fact that there are now five generations in the workforce with increases in chronic diseases like early onset diabetes and you get a work environment with highly diverse health care needs for employees, their spouses and their children.

That puts a strain on your insurance options. Consider that the average U.S. workforce likely represents almost the entire range of care needs, from employees who only need an annual checkup to what one recent report calls the “most vulnerable patients,” people with five or more chronic conditions who heavily rely on health care resources. The report estimates that these patients make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population while accounting for 41 percent of total health care spend.

Between those extremes, employees can have highly diverse needs depending on their situations. Allergies, exercise, nutrition, addictions, work-life balance, disabilities, rehabilitation, stress management, mental health — all of these factors and more play a role.

What can small business health insurance offer, and how can you supplement it to provide effective solutions for differing levels of health care needs?

Assessing Workforce Demographics and Cost of Care

Before you get started, make sure you understand the demographic details of your workforce. Every company is different and may skew toward youth or age, a certain gender or along racial, ethnic and other dimensions in ways that could influence your mix of health benefits and supporting programs.

Remember to weigh your costs, not just number of employees. A small percentage of your employee population can contribute disproportionately to health care costs. Is there anything you can offer employees to mitigate the risks associated with those higher-cost needs?

Supporting Quality Care for Your Workforce

Here are five ways you can support quality care for employees with a range of health levels.

  • Give employees a choice when it comes to insurance. A high-deductible health plan paired with a health savings account is often great for healthier employees who have fewer anticipated care needs. Other options may better serve other levels of care, especially when expensive needs like specialty pharmaceuticals and tricky procedures enter the mix. Flexible spending accounts are another tool to help take on some of those costs for employees with special care needs.
  • Promote a workplace culture of health. A healthy workplace culture reduces stress and gives employees the flexibility to pursue wellness in the way that best suits their needs. A work environment that advocates respect, diversity and inclusion will also promote more open dialogue and foster a stronger sense of community. Training managers on how they can support employees in these endeavors is critical to success.
  • Build an inclusive employee wellness program. To make sure that your wellness program supports employees of all levels of health care needs, listen to employee suggestions and account for your demographics. Complement running groups with walking groups, for example, and offer incentives for a range of healthy behaviors, like achieving fitness goals or managing chronic conditions.
  • Consider telemedicine for focused care needs. Telemedicine is a rapidly growing segment of care. The service offers more convenience and lower costs — and the idea of turning to virtual help for a variety of health concerns is growing on Americans. A research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that annual telemedicine visits have essentially tripled since 2005. Most users — 63 percent — are women, and the most popular uses are getting answers to mental health and primary care-related questions. Teledermatology in particular has seen growth, driven in part by a shortage of dermatologists and regional difficulty some find when trying to schedule an appointment.
  • Use targeted communications. General communications are usually fine for workforces as a whole, but consider delivering specific messages to certain groups of employees. Employees in retail or manufacturing may spend long hours on their feet. Employees working outside deal with sun exposure. Their health insurance may be the same as your white-collar workforce, but their needs are very different. Be careful to respect HIPAA and other privacy requirements when targeting health care communications — but within those guidelines, a little can go a long way toward helping employees make the most of the benefits and programs you make available.

Delivering Better Overall Health and Lower Costs

The biggest opportunity for cost reduction is employees who are also the “most vulnerable patients” with multiple chronic conditions. This isn’t to say that you should single people out or make them feel self-conscious about their health — but a thoughtful strategy for reaching that group and supporting it while still respecting those employees’ privacy and autonomy is a worthwhile investment of time and organizational resources.

While it’s unrealistic to expect employees and their dependents to have uniform health care costs, employers can customize options, raise awareness and provide flexibility. This can encourage employees to get more out of your health plan benefits and workplace wellness initiatives, which in turn may lower expenses and can stabilize your health care costs over time. That’s a winning combination in any book.

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