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Technology backs health care efforts to reduce costs, change behaviors


While some employers are eagerly embracing technology, others are still using paper enrollment and printed benefit communications, either because their employees lack Internet access or because they think many of their employees are not sufficiently tech-savvy to use the interactive new tools that have been developed, like online health risk assessments or medical cost modeling programs.

The case for change is obvious for many employers that found switching to online from paper enrollment produced an immediate return on investment. Meanwhile, vendors are developing ways to measure how effective the next step--giving employees access to Web-based health education support tools--is in lowering employers' overall health benefit costs.

"I think there is still a disconnect between the marketplace's emphasis on consumerism and the willingness of employers to create an informed consumer," said William Smith, vp of sales at Benefit Software Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Mr. Smith said when he talks to employers, he compares introduction of consumer-driven health plans to marketing other products, asking whether the employer would ever introduce a product without advertising it first.

Instead, employers are asking employees to decide about a new plan offering in which employees shoulder more cost, but leave it up to the employees to do their own research, Mr. Smith said.

"There is definitely a cost benefit" to using technology in benefit enrollment and communications, according to Sara Taylor, national annual enrollment leader at Hewitt Associates Inc. in Lincolnshire, Ill. Among other things, the need for additional manpower at enrollment time is reduced, and data entry mistakes are avoided, as are paper, postage, printing, distribution and mailing costs. While it's hard to correlate how stepped-up communications affect health care purchasing decisions, Hewitt has found that people who use online benefit tools are more inclined to change their health plan choices, she said.

"If employers want to reap the financial benefits of making employees consumers, those employers are going to have to have access to information to help them make smart decisions about health care. I think it's just a slam-dunk that Web-based tools are the only way to do that cost-effectively," said Andrew Ceccon, chief marketing officer at Uniondale, N.Y.-based OnlineBenefits Inc., which has developed an online ROI calculator for employers to use.