BenefitsPro: Buzz-worthy HR
Technology, workplace flexibility and increased awareness of generational differences continued to be important issues for HR professionals and brokers in 2017. The rapid pace of change in technological tools, mixed with dramatically different work styles among the various age groups in today’s workforce, present ongoing challenges for those involved with managing employee benefits.
In addition, the customization of benefits continues to offer greater options to both employers and employees. With many Americans now enrolled in some form of health savings account (HSA) arrangement, the use of voluntary benefits, which can help protect against unexpected costs, has been a growing trend, as well.
Making HR millennial-friendly
Generational differences have been a hot topic for HR departments, as well as brokers who are educating companies and their workers on benefits, for several years.
“The largest single trend is the general difference between workers,” says David Reid, founder and CEO of EaseCentral, an HR software company based in San Francisco. “Especially between baby boomers and millennials—they’re completely different animals.”
Reid notes the dramatic difference in the way baby boomers and millennials are used to getting information. “It used to be you got a 20-page packet that was stapled, and workers took it home, studied it and looked at it with a spouse,” he says. “With millennials, you might as well print that on toilet paper, because it isn’t going anywhere. They consume their information only through the web.”
Rodney Alvarez, vice president of talent management at Boston-based Celtra Inc., and a member of the HR Disciplines panel at the Society for Human Resource Management, says some of his company’s most popular offerings among millennials are voluntary benefits apps that can be navigated from a smartphone.
“Generational issues aren’t going away,” he says. “The way millennials use technology and benefits is very different that the old ways that benefits were administered. With millennials, everything is self-service; everything has a portal. They want to be empowered to do everything themselves—to research it, and then go get it.”
Alvarez’ company resides in the tech sector, where the race to attract and retain young workers is fierce—he calls it “hypercompetitive.” Alvarez says to cater to younger workers, companies are offering things like commuter benefits, programs that help repay student debt, and generous family leave options.
“We implemented 18 weeks of maternity leave, and I’m seeing other companies get close to that,” he says. “We are also now offering paternity leave, with six weeks off with full pay, and six week transitioning back.”
Younger workers are demanding device-friendly solutions, but all employees are helped by platforms that make benefit options easier to understand and access. The recent development of software that brings transparency to health care interactions is a promising new step, according to Reid.
He points to apps such as Amino.com and EligibleAPI as examples of services that could revolutionize the way consumers access health care information.
Amino.com is a startup that has compiled de-identified records from 220 million patients and data from $1.8 trillion in health insurance claims in the U.S. to create an app that can give consumers information on costs of specific procedures for specific providers at almost any clinic or hospital in the country.
The cost-saving potential of this type of service is obvious, and it is available for free to consumers. Employers can also partner with Amino for a fee to add the transparency tool to their worker’s health benefits platform.
Reid says Amino.com has cost information that was almost impossible to get before. “You go ask your doctor how much a procedure is going to cost, and they don’t know,” he says. “They don’t know what the reimbursement is going to be because it depends on the carrier. Amino, as a transparency tool, cuts through that and lets the consumer see how much a service is going to cost at that doctor.”
Another technological breakthrough is the emergence of application programming interfaces (APIs), which are programming protocols that allow apps to share data.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Robert S. Huckman and Maya Uppaluru write that although health data APIs have been slow to develop, they could have a big impact on how health care is delivered.
“In a health care market where APIs are commonplace, patients could have easy, efficient access to their own data, which would help them understand their own health and make more informed choices,” Huckman and Uppaluru write. “Providers would be empowered by innovative user interfaces and analytics platforms that could support their clinical decision making. Researchers could have easier access to detailed clinical and claims data to create hypotheses and identify trends—and create a better experience for individuals donating their data for science.”
One API that has recently come online is Eligible, which provides eligibility and insurance verification for health care providers, and can give patients quick access to their billing status.
Reid says that these types of peer transparency tools give patients, providers and insurance plans a degree of cross-platform interoperability that has not been possible in the past.
“Two years ago, these tools didn’t exist, and they’re right around the corner from being on everybody’s mobile device,” he says.
Lisa Boucher, vice president of Cross Employee Benefits in Portland, Maine, says her company has worked with transparency platforms such as DirectPath and MyMedicalShopper. “These are the tools everyone has been looking for,” she says. “They can go in and extract the data on what a health care procedure is going to cost that person. It’s definitely something that has not been available—and it not only helps the individuals, it also helps the employer from a total claims cost perspective.”
Boucher adds that consumers find these transparency tools appealing because they serve as an unbiased, third-party source of information. “People are confident that they’re getting accurate data,” she says.
Are voluntary benefits becoming mandatory?
The popularity of voluntary benefits continued to grow in 2017, especially with more people enrolled in HSAs and health reimbursement accounts (HRAs). Many voluntary benefit products help cover unexpected, or unexpectedly high, costs that might create a problem for families who are on plans with high deductibles. Examples of such products include critical illness insurance and accident insurance.
“Absolutely, we are seeing that voluntary benefits have really taken off in the past few years,” says Boucher. “They help employers round out their benefit offerings to their employees.”
She notes that health plans in her state have traditionally featured higher deductibles than in many other places, so having voluntary benefit plans that cover things like accidents or critical illnesses can help ease the sticker shock. “You can fill in the gaps; if someone with a $2,000 or $3,000 deductible has an accident and has to go to the ER, a voluntary benefit will help them cover some of those costs. It’s how we’re back-filling certain high-deductible policies.”
Reid agrees. “Now that people are paying more out of pocket, they’re increasingly interested in voluntary benefits,” he says. “We’re seeing a bigger demand for these products from employees who want to pick and choose which benefits work best for them.”
The range of voluntary benefits now on the market—which includes life insurance, short-term disability, legal coverage, and more—allows many employees to fine-tune their coverage, Reid adds. “It used to be that an employer had half a dozen benefit plans on offer, and could choose what they liked. Now, employers may have several core benefit plans options, but they could literally have two dozen supplemental policies from which employees can pick, according to their needs.”
Costly drugs and flexible workplaces
Boucher says plan enrollees she works with are also struggling with prescription drug costs. “What we’re seeing across all clients is a significant increase in the cost of prescription drugs—specialty drugs in particular,” she says. “Employers are having to make changes in benefit plans to offset some of the cost.”
She adds that brokers are hearing about a need for better education among both employers and their workers—often because of changing predictions about the fate of the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve been talking employers and employees alike off the ledge; there are so many mixed messages, and costs continue to be so high. So we are spending a lot of time answering questions around that.”
Workplace flexibility is another topic that employees and companies are talking about. Boucher and Alvarez noted that although more flexibility is a good thing in general, some companies have pulled workers back into the office, rather than letting them work remotely.
Although Alvarez’ company has different locations, it does want its employees at the office, rather than working at home. “We want people to be in one place so we can share information. We believe that provides more collaboration and strengthens the culture,” he says.
Reid notes, however, that remote workers are a new reality—and that companies are just trying to find the right balance. “Physical location is becoming less important, and the younger workforce prefers to work from home,” he says. “But it’s still good to regularly bring employees together. There’s no replacement for that contact.”
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(Scott Wooldridge is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, specializing in insurance and health care.)