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Employers implementing integrated disability management strategies are pushing the various vendors with whom they contract to share employee claims data to improve health and manage absences, vendors and employers say.

The data-collected from disability insurers, workers compensation insurers, family medical leave administrators, disease management and pharmaceutical programs as well as health plan vendors-can be combined and analyzed to learn more about an employee population's claims activity, time away from work and health issues.

Often, such data providers are gathering in "vendor summits" with the common goal of interpreting the combined information to help employers develop unified strategies that address employee health and productivity, said Carol Harnett, national practice leader for group disability and life insurance in Simsbury, Conn., for the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.

The trend is shifting away from the concept that envisioned integrated disability management as evolving to combine claims management for several programs under one vendor, or using one integrated system platform to address all claims regardless of their origin, Ms. Harnett said.

That idea never panned out, observers say.

Yet employers haven't given up on integration, a spring survey of 624 employers by the San Francisco-based Integrated Benefits Institute showed.

The survey found that 79% of employers now are coordinating a broad range of programs-including health benefits, disability and workers comp-and they are doing so faster than vendors have provided integration products.

Employers are coordinating programs by internally gathering data or aligning their various programs under the same department, the survey revealed.

Now, at the urging of employers, vendors also are transferring employee claims information to data integrators, Ms. Harnett said.

"This is much more about the integration of data than about the integration of claims systems," she said. "That is by far the biggest trend we are dealing with this year."

The data integrators, also known as data management warehouses, are organizations that can help employers develop a comprehensive look at employee absence patterns and help understand absence costs.

"There certainly has been more of a focus on data sharing," said Michael Fradkin, vp of group disability for Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in Bridgewater, N.J.

"As a disability carrier that is primarily focused on disability, Family Medical Leave Act (administration) and other leave coverages, we are seeing the demand to share information with workers compensation vendors and health care," insurers Mr. Fradkin said.

Mr. Fradkin, however, said employers still would like a single vendor managing as many programs as possible.

"It makes for a better service experience," Mr. Fradkin said.

He agrees, however, that an all-in-one solution generally is not available, so the next best alternative is to transfer data. To do that, insurers increasingly must be able to partner with other vendors, he added.

In addition to demanding the synchronization of vendor data and collaborative vendor meetings, employers also are using sophisticated payroll systems that collect employee benefits eligibility and absence information, said Jarrod S. Magan, assistant vp and technology implementation manager for Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. in Memphis, Tenn.

They are sharing the payroll system data to develop an "employee centric" view of how absence is impacting employers' bottom line, Mr. Magan said.

Approaches vary

As has always been the case, though, employers are approaching integrated disability management practices in a variety of ways.

Chevron Corp., for instance, is integrating data from its disability programs, family medical leave administration, workers comp, vacation days, personal leaves and military leaves, said Mark Huggins, Chevron's team lead for disability management in San Ramon, Calif.

The oil company is doing so by sending the information to OCI, a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based data integrator and unit of Chattanooga, Tenn.-based UnumProvident Corp.

The short-term goal is to obtain an absence management report, Mr. Huggins said. But the long-term goal, one that is shared by other employers, Mr. Huggins said, is to obtain a "health report card," or a productivity report.

That could be done by looking at pharmacy and medical benefits data, for example, to see what health conditions plague employees the most, whether those conditions are causing absences and what specific health programs would best help employees.

Chevron sponsors several health programs such as those for disease management and smoking cessation, Mr. Huggins explained. But data integration could help determine "what are the true health concerns of our employees" and which programs or treatments would best address those concerns.

For instance, employees could be receiving prescription drugs that minimize symptoms stemming from certain illnesses, but not receiving the medical treatment necessary to actually treat the problem's real cause, Mr. Huggins said.

Data integration could help illuminate such issues. But Mr. Huggins stresses that the data being examined by the employer would be aggregate data and not information on specific employees as that would violate privacy laws.