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Tailor wellness programs to individual workforces for maximum effect

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LAS VEGAS — Rising health care costs are front of mind for most employers, but there are several ways to ease the burden.

Implementing a wellness program is one. But companies seeking to reduce health costs through wellness programs should tailor them to the organization's business needs, employees' health risks and the preferences of the employee base, experts say.

It's important to view wellness as “part of a strategy of profitability of the company” and not “just a good thing to do,” said Charlie Estey, executive vice president of business development at Schaumburg, Illinois-based Interactive Health Inc.

“There's plenty of research to show the impact of wellness, not just on medical costs and productivity, but on the value of the company,” he said during the Society for Human Resource Management Inc.'s recent conference in Las Vegas.

Wellness programs also can reduce workplace injuries, workers compensation claims, and absenteeism and presenteeism rates, while boosting productivity and attracting and retaining talent, he said.

To implement a successful wellness program and achieve support from the company's leadership, Mr. Estey recommended determining what problem the company is trying to solve and tailoring the program to address that need. For example, he said, if many employees smoke, tools need to be in place to help them quit.

It's also important, he said, to educate employees about their role as active health consumers and how unaddressed health risks can increase out-of-pocket costs under a high-deductible health plan.

Bruce Elliot, SHRM's Alexandria, Virginia-based benefits manager, said wellness programs work best when companies build them around data from a health risk assessment. If companies are not reacting to that data, then the wellness program isn't “going to bear any fruit,” he said.

Another tactic to reduce health care costs is implementing a medical self-care program, said Don Powell, president and CEO of the Farmington Hills, Michigan-based American Institute for Preventive Medicine.

Medical self-care involves teaching employees to make better decisions about when and when not to access care, he said.

“I think too much of our ways of trying to reduce health costs tend to focus on the supply side; that is, having employees pay more out of pocket (and) ... having to get permission before you can do certain things. We need to focus more on the demand side” of employees through programs such as medical self-care, he said.

What's more, while a wellness program may take two to three years to show financial benefits, the benefit of medical self-care “occurs almost instantaneously” as employees change their habits of accessing care, he said.

Other experts say moving to a defined contribution type of health plan and shifting costs to a private health insurance exchange also can reduce employers' costs.

Though a private exchange won't fix health care cost trends, it will engage the employee in the decision-making process and enable the employer to control annual increases in health care costs, said Rob Harkins, Boston-based practice leader of private exchanges at Willis North America Inc.

Employers also are looking at telemedicine to reduce medical spending. Receiving health services or education remotely via a live videoconference, not only is a cost-effective alternative to an on-site clinic, it also reduces the need for an employee to go to a more expensive urgent care clinic, said Stewart Levy, president of Princeton, New Jersey-based health care consultancy Health Promotion Solutions.

Telemedicine also increases access to care for scattered or rural employees as it alleviates transportation barriers, he said.

Twenty-two percent of employers offered telemedicine consultations to employees last year, and 37% said they expect to offer them this year, according to a 2014 Towers Watson & Co. analysis of employers with 1,000 or more employees. Interest in telemedicine is expected to keep growing, and “everything is moving in the right direction from a regulatory perspective,” Mr. Levy said. “It's all about the care and the ability to provide care more efficiently.”