Episode 15: Preparing for Flu Season

The flu can have a major impact to organizations and their employees, and it’s never too early to start preparing for next year’s flu season. In this episode of Health Advocate’s Ask the Expert series, we’re joined by Health Advocate Medical Director Dr. Jocelyn Sivalingam to discuss the importance of the flu vaccine in the workplace.

The Holistic Perspective

Jeff Silver | American Healthcare Leader

From financial impact to wellness, Pam Mortenson shares how she helps Health Advocate develop customized solutions that address customers’ goals

For decades, West Corporation has been a leading technology-enabled company that connects people all around the world and makes companies more efficient. It provides innovative solutions to companies ranging from telecommunications and entertainment providers to financial services firms. But in 2014, a new opportunity arose when the company acquired Health Advocate, a national health concierge and benefits solutions company. The acquisition merged West’s communication technologies with Health Advocate’s expertise at supporting employer health benefits. As a result, Health Advocate now offers even more valuable insights and services to employers and their employees who face ongoing health- and benefits-related challenges.

“We offer an integrated approach that addresses the many different factors impacting claims costs and overall employee health,” explains Pam Mortenson, Health Advocate’s Executive Vice President, Product strategy. “Many start-up companies in the wellness space only focus on solving one isolated area and miss the holistic perspective that’s needed to produce meaningful results.”

Mortenson says that Health Advocate’s clients and members face four main challenges. First, employees encounter risks associated with high-deductible health plans. Second, companies struggle to increase user engagement with their health programs at the same time that they want to see quick returns on their investments. Simultaneously, their claims costs continue to rise without a clear understanding as to the reasons why. And finally, employers often offer so many different programs that employees may not realize what is available or how separate services are all connected.

Health Advocate addresses these issues by simplifying and clarifying healthcare for its members. A consultative approach is used to garner information from members through health risk-assessment questionnaires and, in some cases, biometric screenings. Claims data analysis is also used to help spot gaps in care, such as missed physicals or inconsistent diabetes care management, as well as pinpoint sources of care costs and identify chronic conditions that may need to be addressed.

“We work with our clients to understand their goals and issues, and then we recommend services and programs that will help meet the needs of the employee population,” Mortenson says. “Otherwise, you’re throwing a lot of darts and hoping one or two of them actually hit something that produces the value you’re looking for.”

Once those issues and priorities have been assessed, Health Advocate helps employers connect appropriate programs and services to the right employees. This is accomplished through both print and digital communications, as well as person-to-person interactions. Employees can call a single number that connects them with a Personal Health Advocate. From this single point of contact, they can then get answers to questions about their health plan options or referrals for second opinions, among other types of assistance.

In addition to these interactions, personalized digital programs have also proven to be effective. The Smart Goals program, which recently completed its pilot phase, sends text messages about personal goals, such as daily diet and exercise reminders. The results have been staggering, as a reported 95 percent of participants completed the pilot program, 68 percent agreed to continue their participation, and a majority felt that the program helped them achieve their health goals.

In the spring of 2017, a major upgrade of Health Advocate’s member portal and mobile app was also rolled out. Improvements increased the ease of use as well as the value of the available information. Although available services vary by employer, members can find health plan information, health and wellness advice, health procedure cost estimates, information about various incentive programs and fitness challenges, and tools to help track their levels of participation in the programs.

Since the launch, member visits to the online portal increased by roughly 55 percent, and first-time downloads of the mobile app jumped by 129 percent. There have also been more than two million actions tracked indicating that members took specific steps to improve their health.

“The combination of so much information developed for specific users who can access it through so many different channels is what makes our approach successful,” Mortenson explains. “Having digital solutions in addition to live coaches and nurses enables us to address everyone’s preferences and a variety of needs.”

Mortenson often focuses with her clients on transitioning from traditional wellness programs that highlight physical fitness to well-being initiatives that emphasize a broader view of holistic health. In addition to physical conditioning and healthy eating, for example, the well-being approach could include support and advice for chronic illnesses, education on planning for retirement, guidance on finding a physician, and referrals for substance abuse.

“Overall physical fitness is obviously important, but we have to be sure to meet the needs of the entire person,” Mortenson says. “That means going beyond traditional exercise and medical visits.”

Mortenson speaks from experience. As an avid runner, she rediscovered the sport when her late husband was fighting a terminal illness. In addition to strengthening her cardiovascular system, running relieved some of her stress and gave her extra energy to care for him and her family.

“Running was a huge part of how I got through a very difficult time in my life,” Mortenson says. “I wouldn’t have been able to care for my husband the way I did without the benefits I got from taking care of myself by getting out on the road every morning.”

As a firm believer in a healthy lifestyle, she welcomes the opportunity to deliver that message to Health Advocate’s customers as often as possible.

Brett Christie | WorldatWork

As organizations become more invested in engagement, employee health and well-being programs are a point of emphasis. To maximize this form of engagement, organizations are increasing communication through technology.

However, as organizations add more health and wellness benefits, it leads to more platforms and the message becomes less concise and more confusing for employees, according to a new survey by Health Advocate.

The “Driving Benefits Engagement: Strategies to Optimize Employee Health and Well-Being Programs” survey found that the biggest challenge for 44% of organizations that work with multiple partners or vendors for benefits is that the experience is disjointed and confusing for employees. And 40% said there is a lack of utilization as a result, as well as technological issues in integrating systems (35%).

A significant reason for the lack of utilization is employee fatigue stemming from multiple logins and multiple notifications from these separate vendors. Where organizations can improve this issue is through consolidation.

“One of the approaches for those different challenges is having all those different benefits on one platform, so that all the messages are coming from one place,” said Marcia Otto, Vice President of Product at Health Advocate. “It’s really tying together data in so many different ways to personalize messages to target members, so they will participate and be aware of the benefits that they have.”

The survey, which included responses from more than 300 HR and benefits managers, found that 60% of respondents said that a single platform “presents each employee with a single point of contact that is personalized, intuitive and interactive.” To further drive home the need for consolidation, 46% said it improves employee engagement with benefits.

Aside from consolidation of benefits data, a critical element to having an effective wellness program is the human touch. The survey of HR and benefits managers found that 82% said having some level of high-touch support increases employee engagement with their benefits. And a majority (78%) offer employees access to live support to help with health goals and benefits navigation.

“What this survey and many other surveys have shown is not only having all the benefits in one place to have a unified message, but to have the high-touch component of being able to call somebody with your questions,” Otto said. “One phone number and one person to help you navigate all the different benefits that you have to help steer you in the right direction ­— that’s one of the biggest points of the survey. In this world that’s moving toward everything being digitally touched, we want to point out that there’s a human touch, that shows that not everybody wants to do everything on their phone and they want a live person to talk to.”

Having both of these elements — an easy-to-navigate digital system as well as live personal support from an expert — is the ideal combination to a successful benefits program that will drive engagement, the survey concluded.

Episode 14: Health and Benefits for Higher Ed

Colleges and universities are unique when it comes to providing healthcare and other benefits and resources to their populations, including faculty, staff and students. In this episode of Health Advocate’s Ask the Expert series, we welcome back Matt Verdecchia, Senior Trainer and Organizational Development Lead with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life division, to discuss health and benefits issues specifically impacting higher education institutions.

HR Daily Advisor

A new survey conducted among HR and benefits managers on employee benefits engagement and utilization has found that despite the ongoing growth of technology, employees desire personalized, human interaction.

This was among the findings of the Driving Benefits Engagement survey by Health Advocate.  Specifically, 78% of respondents said that they offer employees access to live support to help with health goals and benefits navigation, while 80% confirmed that having some level of “high-touch” support increases employee engagement with their benefits.

As explained by Health Advocate in its survey report, “when it comes to navigating the often tricky and sensitive nature of health and wellness benefits, the importance of relying on and interacting with another person – rather than a screen – can’t be underestimated or understated. ”

The survey further found that the consolidation of vendors and platforms may be advantageous when it comes to employee engagement and utilization: 44% of respondents noted that working with multiple vendors creates confusion for employees and 40% said that this “fragmentation” of benefits results in a lack of utilization.

Meanwhile, more than half (54%) of respondents said that used separate benefit tools (with separate user interfaces requiring separate logons).   But 6 in 10 respondents agreed that integrating benefits into a single platform “presents each employee with a single point of contact that is personalized, intuitive and interactive” and 46% believe using a single platform for accessing benefits improves engagement.

The full survey report is available from Health Advocate.com.

Health Advocate’s latest large employer survey uncovers challenges facing employers

By Marcia Otto, VP, Product, West’s Health Advocate Solutions

Organizations continue to focus on helping employees improve their overall well-being, which in turn can positively impact productivity and costs. The key to realizing the value of this focus is an engaged population, yet despite best intentions and large investments, many employers still face low benefits utilization.

In order to better understand how to address this ongoing issue, Heath Advocate recently surveyed more than 300 HR and benefits professionals to gain more in-depth insights into the strategies U.S. employers are deploying to raise employee engagement with their benefits.

Not surprisingly, top approaches to maximize employee engagement in benefits include ongoing communications, events and meetings, and health savings account contributions, however mobile and social media usage is increasing. We wanted to dig in deeper to understand what is and isn’t working and for employers.

Fragmentation Creates Confusion

According to respondents, the biggest hurdle to engagement is that a multitude of benefits programs is often disjointed, confusing, or difficult to access and navigate. Fifty-four percent of organizations offer employees access to a series of separate benefits tools or platforms, each requiring a separate login.

However, 40 percent indicated that working with multiple benefits vendors led to a lack of utilization, with another 35 percent noting technology issues. These factors contribute to challenges for benefits managers trying to address employee’s confusion and streamline the experience. To mitigate this issue, a quarter of respondents report moving toward a single integrated platform, making it easier for employees to utilize their benefits.

The Value of Integration

With a single platform, employees can easily access all of their benefits in one place, online or via a mobile app. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said that this model presents each employee with a single point of contact that is personalized, intuitive and interactive, with another 46 percent indicating that it improves employee engagement with benefits.

The Human Touch is Critical

Survey participants also signaled the importance of balancing technology with the human touch when it comes to driving engagement. Seventy-eight percent currently offer employees access to live support to help with their health and benefits, with more than 80 percent confirming that having some level of high-touch support increases engagement. Technology plays a role, but employees often prefer speaking with a real person when it comes to navigating complex healthcare issues.

How Health Advocate Can Help

In order to address the issues identified in the survey, it is important to find an experienced benefits partners that understands how to effectively tailor benefits programs to best meet the needs of the organization and its employees.

Health Advocate works closely with organizations to create a streamlined program that simplifies the user experience for both clients and members. By seamlessly integrating its data-driven solutions and connecting them with a single phone number and single member platform, Health Advocate reduces confusion and ensures members can easily access resources and help no matter where they are. When combined with the high-touch support of Personal Health Advocates, employees are more likely to be engaged in their health and well-being and get the care they need, leading to improved outcomes and reduced costs.

Contact us to learn how we can work together to drive your employee engagement, and click here to download a copy of the survey report for more information.

Next Story >>

By Kim Fredericks | Reader’s Digest

Navigating the world of healthcare and keeping your medical bills in check can be overwhelming. These tips can help you understand the process and save you money.

Don’t avoid the doctor or pharmacy

It’s not surprising that 64 percent of Americans want to lower their healthcare bills, as a recent survey found, but, it is that avoiding the doctor when sick or in need of medication to keep costs down is a tactic used by 56 percent of people without medical insurance and 27 percent of Millennials. If a patient is not getting their prescription filled because of expense, they need to have a conversation with their doctor, says Raffi Terzian, MD, senior medical director at Health Advocate. Avoiding the doctor can lead to serious gaps in preventative care and result in costlier medical expenses down the road.

Here are the secrets to finding the best doctors, according to doctors.

Do the research

Once your doctor prescribes a procedure, it’s up to the patient to shop around for the best facility, specialist, and care. “Research can be a lot of work,” says David Vivero, co-founder and CEO of Amino. “Considering that the cost of procedures such as an ACL surgery can vary by as much as $17,000, it’s worth the time to compare cost (and quality) and confirm that your care is in-network.” Here are 16 questions that could save you money on prescription drugs.

Stay in-network

In-network versus out-of-network is the big driver for cost, but it is sometimes not that easy to know if a health care provider or lab or physician is in- or out-of-network, especially if you are in an emergency situation and several procedures are required, explains Younes Ghanian, co-founder of Mebex. “If you have the ability to do the research to ensure the health care providers are in-network, it will make a big difference,” he says. “But if you are not able to do that, when you get the bill, check to make sure procedures and processes listed on the bill are something you received.” If the charges are out-of-network, there is the chance that you will be able to get a discount from the provider, explains Ghanian, but you need to present a case that is viable. Companies such as Mebex and other healthcare advocates can help patients sort out the paperwork because they work with payers and providers. Learn about how each state ranks in health care.

Seek prior authorization

Before you agree to have a procedure, ask your doctor to submit a prior authorization (pre-approval) to your insurance company before you have the service, says Dr. Terzian. Health insurance companies use the prior authorization to verify that a procedure or drug is medically necessary before it is done or the prescription is filled. By receiving prior authorization, the doctor will be able to understand how something will be covered and if it will be covered, says Dr. Terzian. Taking the risk of having the service done or the prescription filled before the insurance company approves it can be costly—leaving the patient responsible for the cost.

If it’s not covered, negotiate

Sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with new technology, newer treatments, and therapies, some procedures will not be covered by the insurance company. “If you learn that you are not covered, there are opportunities to negotiate,” says Dr. Terzian. “Start the conversation directly with the provider or hospital,” he says. “Ask them about arranging a discount or payment plan.” If that doesn’t work, patients can turn to an advocacy service who can do the negotiating on their behalf.

Check your prescription

When it comes to the costs of prescription drugs, it’s important to know how much your pharmacy plan will cover. “Many plans have tiers for prescription drug coverage, and will automatically give the generic first,” says Dr. Terzian. Some doctors want to prescribe a particular drug, and will make an argument for coverage, he says, but it is always worth asking if there is a suitable generic available at a lower cost, and there is no harm in shopping around to different pharmacies to get the best price. “If your prescription is not covered, look to larger retailers, like Walmart, as they may offer a better discount.” Here are 10 important questions to ask before you take prescription medications.

Order in bulk

If you are on a maintenance drug where you need a 90-day supply, such as birth control pills or drugs for certain conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, ordering by mail might help you save money, along with a trip to the drug store. “Some healthcare plans will tell you to use mail order,” says Dr. Terzian. They use mail order pharmacy programs that operate through a pharmacy benefit manager, intermediaries that negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies to get the best rates. While ordering prescriptions by mail may help save money, there are certain precautions one should take before using this system.

Set up an HSA

If you anticipate having a procedure down the road, setting up a healthcare savings account (HSA) can help you save money in the long run, says Dr. Terzian. An HSA can be used by patients with high-deductible health plans—those with a deductible of at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family, according to HealthCare.gov. An HSA allows you to be proactive and start saving for future healthcare expenses, says Vivero. It allows you to put pretax money aside, grow that money tax-free, and use it later for qualified medical expenses—without paying any taxes–while it rolls over year after year. “Think of it as a powerful 401K for healthcare that you actually have the keys to.”

Ask questions

When you don’t understand a medical bill, it is important to ask questions, especially at the doctor’s office, says Vivero. According to Consumer Reports, only 31 percent of Americans haggle with doctors over medical bills, but 93 percent of those who did were successful, with more than a third of those saving more than $100, says Vivero. At the end of the day, if there is an opportunity to negotiate the bill, having the right information, asking the right questions, and collecting the right information will help the situation at hand,” says Ghanian. “Be organized about collecting all the information so when it comes time to negotiate, you don’t have missing pieces.” Here are 12 insider tips for choosing the best primary care doctor.

Make lifestyle changes

One way to reduce your medical bills is to take care of your health. Numerous studies have proven that exercise and following a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease while one study shows the financial impact of improved behaviors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 10 percent weight loss could reduce an overweight person’s lifetime medical costs by up to $5,300. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week and following a healthy diet to help control your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

By Valerie Bolden-Barrett | HRDive

Dive Brief:

More than 40% of employees find that dealing with multiple vendors to access their benefits is confusing, according to a new Health Advocate’s survey, “Driving Benefits Engagement: Strategies to Optimize Employee Health and Well-Being Programs.” To add to the confusion, 54% of employers offer access to benefits on different platforms requiring separate logins, causing workers to forego the process.

Survey participants found fragmentation to be a major barrier to engagement. However, touch tools for accessing benefits remain employers’ main means for enhancing engagement, and 78% of employers offer workers live support to help them navigate the benefits system and make healthcare decisions. The same percentage of respondents said live support increased engagement.

Survey results show that other key drivers of engagement include consistent communication, including intranets and newsletters (78%); events and meetings (67%); contributions to flexible spending accounts (FSAs), health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) (65%); and incentives, such as reduced insurance premiums, cash and gifts (54%).

Dive Insight:

Employers know well the advantages of having a healthful, happy and productive workforce. But as Health Advocate’s survey indicated, the high costs of medical care and stress in the workplace also force employers to consider employee wellness as a business imperative.

A benefits program that’s fragmented and disjointed and that forces employees to access their benefits through multiple vendors creates an uneven employee experience that won’t encourage engagement. Tech tools can help workers access benefits quickly and conveniently 24/7, but this ease of access is compromised if they have to contend with a series of logins on different platforms. For this reason, many have opted for concierge or all-in-one services with a single access point to try and streamline the benefits experience.

Communication lapses in the workplace usually top most workers’ list of complaints. Benefits options, details and changes should be communicated regularly, not just during open enrollment. Benefits are complicated, and cramming information about them in a few weeks’ time is usually more than employees can easily digest. Education on options can go a long way in encouraging engagement.

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert | BenefitsPRO

“The more the merrier” does not always apply when it comes to benefits, especially if it results in confusion and low employee engagement, according to Health Advocate’s report, “Driving Benefits Engagement: Strategies to Optimize Employee Health and Well-Being Programs.”

Heath Advocate surveyed more than 300 HR and benefits managers, and one of the key questions posed was, “If you currently work with multiple partners/vendors, what are your biggest challenges?”

Nearly half (44 percent) say offering a myriad of programs feels “disjointed, confusing for employees,” and 43 percent say a significant challenge is dealing with the fragmentation of tools, including those internally developed, particularly having several numbers to call for questions or help with a program. Another problem, according to 40 percent of the respondents, is the lack of utilization, and 35 percent feel technology issues with integrating systems was a challenge.

“Clearly, there are a number of contributing factors, making it complicated for benefits managers to manage the mounting confusion,” the authors write. “Some organizations mitigate this by having one expert or one number to call to help navigate the various benefits from a multitude of vendors. This expert would have to be educated on all of an employee’s options in order to effectively help them get the right help when they need it.”

In addition to offering a mix of programs, employers are adding new technologies to support benefits, including new wearable devices, interactive software programs, mobile apps and online trackers. However, implementing additional technologies also increases the complexity of the benefits program for employees. More than half (54 percent) of survey respondents say they are using a series or mix of separate benefit tools, with separate user interfaces requiring separate login.

Streamlining programs through a single platform or vendor can mitigate these problems and promote engagement, according to the report. But while the right platform can help, “human touch” is still critical to many employees.

Eight out of ten respondents say that having some level of high-touch support increases employee engagement with their benefits. A majority (78 percent) offer employees access to live support to help with health goals and benefits navigation.

“Having an expert available to help remains critical to assisting employees as they navigate the often confusing healthcare system,” the authors write. “By incorporating these services into existing benefits offerings, organizations can achieve ‘the healthcare trifecta’ — increased productivity, managed costs and improved health outcomes.”

By Jessy Paull | Employee Assistance Report

Financial stress is alive and well across America. While front pages and online headlines tout low unemployment rates and a soaring stock market, there is a silent trend taking place: American employees are worried about their financial well-being, and the effects of that stress are a double-edged sword.

For one thing, stress can negatively impact employee mental and physical well-being, adversely affecting relationships, work performance, and their overall health, at home or in the workplace. For another, that outcome will cause a ripple effect in all areas of an individual’s well-being, lowering productivity, and profitability for employers.

When you look at the breadth of this impact, it makes sense to integrate financial wellness programs into any organization’s well-being strategy. Employees look to their employers for support in becoming more financially secure and employers can leverage the EAP.

Why the EAP? A 2016 survey by West’s Health Advocate Solutions, “Striking a Healthy Balance: What Employees Really Want Out of Workplace Benefits Communication,” found that when it comes to personal issues, most employees, from every demographic, prefer to talk one-on-one with a human being. For this reason, many EAPs now offer financial counseling.

Case Examples

Meet Tony and Jenna, two typical employees. Stress about mounting debt was having a negative impact on Tony’s work and health. Apart from calls from debt collectors, Tony faced his son’s college tuition payments and possible personal bankruptcy.

With his employer’s help, Tony managed to work out a solution. Among other things, he accessed online articles to help him understand debt repayment and personal loans. Tony took a financial fitness tutorial on saving for short-, mid- and long-term objectives for financing his son’s education and his own financial future.

Finally, Tony consulted a financial specialist about managing his debt, and a legal expert about the pros and cons of declaring bankruptcy. He emerged the better for it and began to get his world in order.

Jenna, a highly motivated but debt-laden recent college grad, faced an overwhelming concern about paying back her sizeable college loan balance, along with her mounting credit card balances and normal, day-to-day bills such as rent, utilities, food, etc.

Like Tony, Jenna took to the Internet to begin making sense of her situation; she quickly realized she was far from alone. Jenna found that her current employer offered both a tuition reimbursement program and a new student loan repayment benefit. She also immersed herself in strategies to manage college loan repayment – a major step in fighting through the stress and complexity to emerge on solid financial footing.

Employee Financial Well-Being Plummets

Unfortunately, success stories like those of Tony and Jenna are more the exception than the rule today and recent research bears out this hidden, but emerging, trend.

A recent survey from global consulting firm Willis Towers Watson (WTW), found that the financial well-being of America’s workforce dramatically changed course in 2017 — after several years of steady improvement. According to WTW, the firm’s biennial survey, last conducted in 2015, also revealed a large increase in the number of employees who say their financial woes are negatively affecting their lives and who are worried about their future financial situation.

Specifically, WTW’s 2017 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey found that only 35 percent of nearly 5,000 U.S. workers polled felt satisfied with their financial situation this year. In 2015, it was 48 percent.

Another piece of research, from the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), found that roughly 85 percent of Americans are anxious about their financial lives. CFSI reports that financial stress contributes to productivity losses, increased absences and healthcare claims, higher turnover, and costs associated with workers who cannot afford to retire on time. Also, the type of work, specific industries, or salary ranges do not discriminate when it comes to financial stress.

When it comes to saving for retirement, the 27th annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, reported that half of survey respondents say that retirement planning, financial planning, or healthcare planning programs would be helpful in increasing their productivity.

Among workers, 3 in 10 admit that they worry about their personal finances while at work and less than 20 percent feel very confident about having enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years.

If this all sounds glum, it should. Yet, as the examples of Tony and Jenna attest, there also is a tremendous business opportunity for employers to invest in employee financial well-being tools and services. With the right combination of programs and online apps, employees can effectively manage their day-to-day financial lives in order to weather life’s ups and downs.

Financial Well-Being Benefits Engagement

Having financial well-being programs is one thing, but employee engagement in these programs is another. How can employers boost engagement? By working with the EAP and referral resources to offer programs that offer meaningful benefits choices using automation with personalization tools that do each of the following:

  • Educate employees about financial safety net options, such as contributing to a 401(k), health savings accounts, tuition reimbursement and other available options.
  • Provide the right online financial resources so employees can take action: calculators, articles, webinars, and downloadable forms. Some employers even offer a financial fitness center with several hundred tutorials to choose from.
  • Offer free financial and legal consultation to help employees with a range of issues from IRS matters, to divorce financial planning to elder care law.

Summary

The bottom line: Employers can boost engagement by designing programs that leverage both the workplace environment and new technologies. Technology exists to combine all of the above into a single, encompassing portal that can successfully guide employees on their journey to financial wellness without adding to the workload of the benefits department. As a result, employee well-being will lead to happier, healthier, and more resilient employees and an improved bottom line for the employer.