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High-touch benefits support services experiencing a resurgence

By Abbie Leibowitz, M.D. | BenefitsPRO

The latest Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey from the National Business Group on Health highlights a number of leading trends among employee health and benefits. While responses are from large employers, the results are often indicative of issues impacting businesses of all sizes across the country. Although prioritization and the impact of these issues may vary among organizations of different sizes, other matters are universal.

Topping this list is health care costs. Unsurprisingly, the survey found that participating employers anticipate health care costs will continue to rise. In an early estimate, average health care costs are projected to increase 5 percent in the next year, including both employer and employee contributions. These inexorable annual increases place a burden on both organizations and their employees.

Simultaneously, the complexity of health care is also increasing, leading to reduced productivity and utilization of benefit programs. Further contributing to the complicated benefits environment is the growing number of standalone services available to employees. While wellness programs, EAPs, pricing transparency tools, disease management programs and others may be valuable resources to help employees improve their overall health and well-being, employees facing a health issue are often overwhelmed and unsure where to turn for assistance.

In fact, a 2016 Health Advocate survey found that 42 percent of HR leaders partner with, on average, four to six benefits vendors to provide these programs. Although technology has a firmly established role in access to benefits information, the NBGH survey uncovered another trend. As organizations look to address both rising costs and complexity, they increasingly turn to high-touch, personalized, live-agent support services.

Rise of high-touch support services

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) and advocacy services have existed for quite some time. As health care has become more complicated, these services provide much needed assistance. In today’s health benefits environment, they are more important than ever and continue to adapt, evolve and grow to meet the changing and increasing needs of employees. While apps, websites and other tech tools are important complements to these services, they cannot replace the value of live support.

As organizations continue to adopt consumer-driven health plans (CDHPs), employees take on more responsibility for their health and need additional assistance navigating the complexities of the health care system. According to the NBGH survey, in 2018, 90 percent of large employers will offer a CDHP option, with a rising percentage making this the only available option. We’re now witnessing a correlation between the shift to CDHPs and the growing use of high-touch and decision support services, and data from the NBGH survey further establishes this.

Employers are seeking strategies, services and tools to help their employees both maximize their benefits and more easily access high-value care. Organizations surveyed by NBGH indicate the offering of these programs will increase up to 20 percent from 2017 to 2018, including medical decision support and second opinion services; advocacy and claims assistance resources; and high-touch concierge services. These services positively impact both employees and organizations as the health care system and employee benefits continue to become more complicated.

Benefits of advocacy and concierge tools

When companies implement third-party support services, the effects can be felt throughout the organization, including immediately relieving the strain on human resources staff. HR and benefits professionals are often stretched thin, especially during open enrollment. Advocacy services can function as HR outsourcers, assuming roles delegated to them for employee support during “Crunch Time.” Partnering with an advocacy service augments their bandwidth, enabling the HR and benefits teams to focus on the highest priority items.

For employees, these services “meet them where they are” by balancing emerging technologies with high-touch support, ensuring that their needs are effectively met in the way that works best for them. Although technology plays an important role, most interactions these days are “hybrids,” mixing digital navigation and live personal support.

As a complement to this, many support programs have the capability to enhance and personalize communications to engage employees and help them proactively take charge of their health. According to NBGH survey respondents, this is one of the most effective tactics to manage rising costs and dovetails well with advocacy services.

These services can also impact an organization’s bottom line. When experts step in to help troubleshoot challenging issues, it saves employees time, money and stress by taking this burden off their shoulders. Further, when employees are able to focus on work instead of personal health issues during the work day, productivity increases across the organization. Making the health care system function more efficiently and effectively for the user results in better outcomes and lower costs, creating savings that drop right to the bottom line.

Employers provide their workforce with a number of useful benefits. However, the sheer number can sometimes be overwhelming, leading to lack of engagement. As a partner to the organization, benefits support services can help raise awareness of available resources and ensure employees understand how to maximize their benefits. By guiding employees to cost-effective care, it is possible to lower overall costs for both employees and the organization.

While increased productivity and reduced costs are high priorities, the health and well-being of employees is paramount. Advocacy services provide a wealth of knowledge and expert decision support to help employees make informed choices and more easily access appropriate care. Combined with outreach to encourage more preventive care and condition management, these services can help move the needle toward better outcomes throughout the covered population.

High-touch, personalized support remains critical to assisting employees as they navigate the often confusing health care system. By incorporating these services into existing benefits offerings, organizations can achieve “the health care trifecta;” increased productivity, managed costs and improved health outcomes.