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Leader put benefits revamp on fast track

Posted On: Jun. 21, 2015 12:00 AM CST

As assistant director of human resources at Western Kentucky University, Kari A. Aikins treats managing health and retirement benefits for the Bowling Green college's 2,300 employees as one component — albeit a critical one — of a larger objective.

“I've never been interested in having a single functional responsibility,” Ms. Aikins said. “I like to think about human resources as being a very fluid organization. Instead of separating health care, retirement and compensation, I want us to talk more about the whole life cycle of our employees' careers at Western Kentucky.

“I try not to think about benefits as a singular piece of HR, and I'm really trying to move our entire department toward a more process-oriented approach,” she said.

Her belief in the value of a more inclusive approach to benefits management, coupled with her well-documented strategic planning and communication talents, enabled Ms. Aikins to orchestrate a near-complete overhaul of the university's health benefits program.

That has earned her a place on Business Insurance's 2015 Benefits Management Honor Roll®.

“It's just extraordinary to think back on all of the things we were able to accomplish, especially within the time frame in which we did it,” said Tony Glisson, Western Kentucky University's director of human resources. “I'm still not quite sure how we did it all, but it certainly couldn't have been done without Kari's leadership, the help of her team and the help of our consulting partners.”

Like many employers, Ms. Aikins said Western Kentucky was struggling to rein in its health care costs and minimize its exposure to the looming excise tax on high-value benefit plans that is due to take effect in 2018 under the federal health care reform law.

In response, Ms. Aikins — along with her university colleagues and staff, and her benefits advisory partners at Sibson Consulting, a unit of The Segal Group Inc. — decided early last year to replace Western Kentucky's traditional self-insured preferred provider organization health plans with a suite of account-based plans, including a health savings account-linked high-deductible plan and two health reimbursement arrangement-linked PPO plans.

That she was able to navigate the university's new benefits strategy from concept to implementation in less than a year, given its complex internal management structure and wide range of constituent groups, is a testament to her unique blend of skills and commitment, her colleagues and consultant partners said.

“It really was a massive undertaking,” said Norman Jacobson, a senior vice president at Sibson Consulting in New York, who worked closely with Ms. Aikins' department to design and implement the university's revamped health benefits strategy.

“Executing a full replacement for health benefits would take three years at most higher education institutions,” Mr. Jacobson said. “We were able to get the approval done in three months, which is why I think she deserves the accolades that she's received.”

He attributed the rapid approval in large part to Ms. Aikins' ability to identify and address the concerns of the university's multiple interest groups at once.

“To see how it all interlinks and coordinate all of that, you have to have a very broad field of vision, and to me, that's what makes her exceptional,” Mr. Jacobson said.

At the same time, Ms. Aikins and her colleagues saw the changes as an opportunity to improve employee engagement in Western Kentucky's workplace wellness program, which had moderate participation rates since its launch nearly a decade earlier but struggled to generate meaningful reductions in staff and faculty health risks.

To that end, Ms. Aikins and her team devised a new wellness incentive structure rooted in behavioral economics, wherein the university contributes to employees' HSAs or HRAs for pledging to complete certain wellness activities by a set date, and imposes higher premiums for failing to do so.

“Kari and I were joined at the hip through the whole planning process, but she steered the ship,” said Wade Pinkard, the university's employee wellness manager. “I think the two of us, together with our consultants, have put together what I would call a "best practice' wellness strategy with a powerful incentive design and a comprehensive program that sends a message across our campus that health matters, and I think we're slowly starting to change the culture.”

With the new incentive structure now fully implemented, the university has seen its wellness program participation rate grow to 88% of eligible employees while its percentage of employees with moderate to high health risks has shrunk.

“She's a rare find and a rare talent,” Mr. Glisson said. “Sometimes we lose the forest for all of these trees we have in our immediate field of vision, but Kari has definitely put us in a position to do more on a strategic level, and I believe we've been able to convince our senior leadership to be a little more in tune with that line of thinking.”