By Kevin Pailet, Head of Office - Dallas Employee Benefits
Our nation’s health care system is complex—from changing coverage mandates to insurance jargon, unfamiliar diagnostic procedures and treatment options, and a lack of pricing transparency when choosing a provider. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults are proficient in health literacy. Perhaps even more shocking, 30 million people have Below Basic health literacy, the organization reports. They are unable to define common insurance terms, like coinsurance, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximums, and the majority of those with high-deductible health care plans are unfamiliar with how a health savings account actually works.
For employers, these findings indicate that a significant percentage of their workforce lack the knowledge and skills to manage their health, make informed decisions, and prevent injury or disease. The result? Productivity declines, absenteeism increases, and the company and its employees end up paying more than they should for their insurance and health care. In fact, research indicates that adults lacking health literacy are more likely to have chronic conditions, and have a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency services. As businesses struggle to keep medical costs in check and employees are asked to take on greater financial responsibility, improving workers’ health literacy is imperative to protecting their physical and fiscal well-being. Here are three strategies that employers can use to address the issue, and improve health literacy among their workforce:
Traditionally, benefits enrollment meetings focus on explaining available coverage options and helping employees complete the enrollment process on time. This approach misses a critical opportunity to educate and empower workers on how to use their benefits once a program is in place. The result is that employees misuse or overuse healthcare services. To wit: According to OECD data, the United States is second only to Turkey among OECD member countries in the number of MRI exams ordered, and the leader in CT scans. In the U.S., it has become common practice for doctors to recommend these high-tech diagnostic procedures to quickly rule out the source of a patient’s symptoms, rather than explore other, less costly options. But, neither businesses nor their employees need to stay passive in the process. Through enrollment meeting presentations, e-newsletters, videos and other communication tools, companies can explain to employees how to reduce their out-of-pocket expenses, and teach them how to ask questions during a consultation or exam. Instead of blindly walking out with a referral to a specialist or an order for lab work, the patient is equipped to have a meaningful conversation with their health care provider and make informed decisions for themselves and their family.
A key part of any educational effort should center on the price discrepancies between healthcare providers, and giving employees the tools to choose a lower-cost doctor or facility without sacrificing quality. One study showed that Americans spend $4.4 billion annually on emergency room (ER) visits for issues that could be handled through a retail medical clinic, primary care physician, or telemedicine service at a lower cost with the same quality of care. Helping employees understand their options and the impact on out-of-pocket expenditures and insurance premiums can motivate them to think twice before they head to the ER for a sinus infection, flu, or upset stomach. Similarly, within a provider network prices for the same procedure can vary by as much as 500 percent, but employees often fail to realize they have a choice in where to go for care. Tools like Healthcare Bluebook (www.healthcarebluebook.com) give workers quick and easy access to price and provider information, as well as help ensure they don’t overpay for things like elective surgery or choose a facility with a poor track record.
In a recent webinar on improving employees’ health literacy presented by Employee Benefit News, co-founder and CEO of Quizzify, Al Lewis, noted “You cannot have a culture of health without a culture of health literacy.” His company provides trivia-style quizzes reviewed by Harvard Medical School to help businesses create health-literate employees, as well as administrative reporting that provides both macro and employee-specific usage information in real time. These types of engaging and interactive platforms can help simplify complex topics and improve employees’ understanding of how decisions around provider selection and treatment options can impact their health and their budget.
Marsh & McLennan Agency provides our employee benefits program clients with free access to useful employee education tools, including customized Brainshark videos that provide a basic overview of insurance and healthcare topics, such as deductibles, coinsurance, and Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statements. In addition, our iNGAGED (www.ingaged.co) global communication platform is custom branded for MMA clients to create a personalized employee experience. This lets employers put all benefits-related apps, information, and content into one convenient mobile app with push notifications for day to day or communications.
Traditionally, employers have focused on negotiating better insurance premiums or discounted contracts to keep healthcare costs low, or shifted the burden to employees through high-deductible healthcare plans. Instead, by focusing on education to improve employee health literacy, companies can drive positive behaviors, reduce expenditures, and increase productivity while also acting in the best interest of their workforce. Marsh & McLennan Agency provides innovative employee benefits solutions for businesses of all sizes, and we can help your business design and implement effective strategies to improve employee health literacy. If we can be of any service, please give us a call.