Some of the fastest-growing Medicare costs stem from doctors using new medical devices for testing and treatment in their offices, recent data shows.

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, four of the top 10 fastest-growing Medicare services from 2012 to 2014 involved new medical devices being used by doctors in their offices, instead of in care settings where they might typically be used.

The appeal to doctors of using these new devices is clear: because of the way Medicare payments are structured, their use can be very lucrative. There is also the convenience factor for both doctors and patients. And in an era when technology offers sophisticated medical innovations small enough for use in doctors’ offices, it’s easy to see how doctors are tempted to use cool new devices.

But the consequences of doctors using more medical devices in their offices is an uptick in Medicare spending, to the tune of $135 million, according to Medicare billing records. While that amount of money is a drop in the bucket of total Medicare spending, if the trend continues, it could result in meaningful increases.

So while in-office testing and treatment has its advantages, it’s a trend that bears watching from a cost-benefit point of view.

To read the article in the Wall Street Journal, click here.

In August 2016, Willis Towers Watson opened a state-of-the-art technology hub and service center in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area city of Tempe, AZ. The center is filling over 400 positions to work on software development and customer service for clients across the country. The number of employees there will increase to 800 over time.

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800 New Tech Jobs Coming To Tempe [ABC Channel 12 News]

New hires in the center include software engineers, quality assurance specialists, product managers, licensed benefits advisors and customer service representatives, all serving employers and employees who use our private exchange solutions.

With the addition of the new center, our Exchange Solutions segment now has more than 5,000 employees in 12 U.S. development and service centers focused on developing and supporting technology-based employee benefit solutions.

According to Gene Wickes, managing director of Exchange Solutions for Willis Towers Watson, the center will help the company achieve three key goals:

  1. Accelerate the development of a consistent and seamless user experience across all exchange offerings by unifying development teams
  1. Accommodate staffing needs as Exchange Solutions scales to handle the high volume of phone calls during enrollment periods—already over 1 million and growing
  1. Continue the significant investments already made in the cutting-edge call center technology and training that continuously improve the efficiency of benefit advisors and customer service representatives

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Learn more about the Phoenix tech hub and service center here and about our national centers here.

Willis Towers Watson this week released a list of the top 10 questions employees should ask their employers about 2017 plan offerings before selecting new plans or renewing existing ones. The questions are based the results of our 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, which quizzed employers on their expected cost increases for 2017 and the actions they plan to take to manage costs while delivering quality care.

According to the survey, employers expect an average increase of 5.0% in total health care costs in 2017. Areas of focus for plan changes are prescription drugs, spouse and dependent coverage, and expensive medical procedures such as specialized surgeries.

In addition to questions about steps employers might have taken to keep costs down, we suggested that employees ask which health plans their preferred doctors and other providers accept; what new benefits–including voluntary benefits–employers might have added; and whether employers have introduced new technologies such as a private benefits exchange to help employees select and manage benefits.

For the complete list of 10 questions, read the press release here.

 

The League of California Cities® announced today that it is working with Willis Towers Watson to give cities more health care options to offer to their retirees through the League of California Cities’ Health Benefits MarketplaceSM (HBM). The HBM launched in August and is a consumer-driven platform that lets cities redesign their approach to medical insurance and gives retirees and active employees coverage choices that align with their individual needs.

League of California Cities partners with OneExchange

League of California Cities Health Benefits Marketplace (HBM) partners with OneExchange to provide Medicare and early retiree medical coverage options to California cities

“California city officials have expressed the need for solutions to the ongoing pressure they face in reducing Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) liabilities and providing competitive health benefits to active employees and retirees,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director, League of California Cities. “The Health Benefits Marketplace provides cities with the flexibility to leverage technology to enable greater health care choice as well as help manage OPEB liabilities and rising health care costs by decoupling and unbundling active employee and retiree costs.”

Reducing OPEB liabilities and providing health benefits to active employees and retirees is a challenge for many cities. The HBM provides cities with an efficient tool to leverage technology to enable greater health care choice as well as help manage OPEB liabilities and rising health care costs by allowing cities to handle retiree health benefits separately from health benefits for active employees.

Medicare and early-retiree coverage on the HBM is provided by Willis Towers Watson on its OneExchange™ marketplace. OneExchange lets cities achieve an immediate reduction in retiree health benefit costs, including long-term liability and the administration of health plan management. Retirees enjoy the value and transparency of a robust marketplace, meaningful choice of individual plans, and the expert assistance of licensed benefit advisors to help them choose coverage that fits their needs.

Diversified Benefit Strategies serves as the League’s private exchange consultant.
“The League went through a rigorous selection process to choose its partners for the Health Benefits Marketplace,” said Barry Eyre, lead consultant, Diversified Benefit Strategies. “Willis Towers Watson and Connecture have proven to be excellent partners in the creation of a highly flexible platform designed to meet the needs of public agencies in California.”

To learn more about the League’s Health Benefits Marketplace visit www.cacities.org/hbm and for the full announcement, see League of California Cities Announces New Partners in Offering Improved Health Benefits Options to Local Cities.

 

Despite efforts to establish quality metrics for health care and empowering health care consumers to choose elements of their own coverage, recent findings still show that people shop primarily around cost. This is according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), covered in a recent article in the New York Times.

According to the HHS analysis of buying trends in the public health insurance marketplace, two-thirds of people went for the lowest- or second-lowest-priced plans for the plan year 2015. For the plan year 2016, approximately half of people chose the cheapest plans.

According to health economist Austin Frakt in a different article in the New York Times, choosing a health plan based on premium price alone may be problematic because it leaves out other aspects of choosing care, such as the cost of the deductible. Other aspects of care, such as quality of care and number of doctors in the area, are also left out when only cost is considered.

This is where employers can step in. With clear and regular communication, and simple benefit tools, employers can help employees make the the best health care decisions possible given their health status and budgets.

To read the entire article in the New York Times, click here.

A recent slideshow in Employee Benefit Advisor identified the top 10 worst states for student loan debt. As an employer, should you care whether any of the states in which you hire are on the list? Based on an article by Randy Abbott, a senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, in Employee Benefit News (EBN) earlier this year, the answer could be “yes.”

According to Abbott, a growing number of employers interested in recruiting and retaining Millennials are offering benefits related to student debt, including debt forgiveness, assistance in paying off debt, and financial advising. A recent Willis Towers Watson survey showed that 4% of employers currently have student debt refinancing programs, but by 2018, that number could grow to 26%.

To find out which states are the worst for student debt, see the complete article in Employee Benefit Advisor.

To read Randy Abbott’s article in EBN on student loan repayment plans and advice for employers considering adding them to their employee benefits, click here.

Employers are increasingly turning to private exchanges for their full-time employees, as evidenced by the recent announcement by Starbucks about making the switch.

While large employers have been slower to adopt private exchanges than small- to medium-size employers, according to Craig Jannino, group exchange leader for Willis Towers Watson, this has more to do the immaturity of early exchanges than it does with employer interest. In a recent article in Inside Health Insurance Exchanges, Jannino explained, “Large employers have not lost interest in exchanges. Instead, in our view, private exchanges have only recently evolved to meet the particular needs of large employers.”

Early adopters of exchanges were intrigued by the potential for cost savings. But large employers have traditionally done a good job of managing cost. Thus as exchanges have evolved, so have adopters. Instead of being primarily focused on cost, today’s adopters are also concerned about “meet[ing] the needs of a more multi-generational workforce, creat[ing] a more satisfying benefit experience, and manag[ing] the complexity associated with providing employees with a much broader array of benefit types,” said Jannino.

To read the entire article in Inside Health Insurance Exchanges, click here and select the August 2016 issue. [Note: Article is behind a paywall.]

In the wake of big tech companies such as Netflix and Facebook making headlines for expanding their parental leave offerings, other companies are looking to stay competitive in the war for talent by adding these benefits to their own benefit packages.

According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, covered in a recent article for Bloomberg, just 26% of employers offer paid maternity leave, 21% offer paid paternity leave, and 20% offer paid adoption leave.

But this won’t be the case for long, according to Willis Towers Watson national practice leader, Jackie Reinberg. Quoted in the Bloomberg article, Reinberg said: “The hottest thing out there is the area of parental leave. Organizations are very, very rapidly looking at creating it as a retention tool or an attraction tool, or increasing it.”

To read the complete article in Bloomberg BNA, click here.

According to the Willis Towers Watson 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, U.S. employers expect their health care costs to increase 5% this year and next with plan changes, and 6% without plan changes. These increases are at historical lows, but slightly higher than in 2015 and still more than twice the rate of inflation.

The survey also found that in the face of these continuing cost pressures, employers will make modest to moderate changes to their plans and programs to manage costs. However, according to Julie Stone, a national health care practice leader for Willis Towers Watson, given employee affordability concerns, most employers will focus on changes to high-cost benefits rather than on changes that would add to employees’ out-of-pocket costs.

The high-cost services that will get the most attention are pharmacy and especially specialty pharmacy, and surcharges for coverage of working spouses who are eligible for coverage from their own employers.

Employers also are encouraging employees to use centers of excellence for specialty care that have proven track records of delivering quality services at less cost. Telemedicine is being adopted by employers as another source of cost savings. In an article in Politico reporting on the survey and employer adoption of telemedicine, Allan Khoury, a senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, said, “We think the savings are real.”

To read the press release announcing survey results, click here.

To read two articles on the findings, click here for Kaiser Health News and here for Politico.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced an initiative to dedicate more than $200 million in federal funding to personalized or “precision” medicine. In December of that year he signed into law bipartisan legislation appropriating the funds. And in early March of this year (2016), the White House hosted a Precision Medicine Summit where more than 40 private sector organizations presented commitments they’ve made and ideas they have for accelerating progress in the field.

As part of this effort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the White House announced that it is seeking one million people to participate in a 10-year research effort. Volunteers will be asked to submit their genetic and lifestyle information so government scientists can study it to better understand the causes and cures of some of the most serious diseases affecting Americans. In a recent article in the New York Times NIH Director Francis Collins described it “the largest, most ambitious research project of this sort ever undertaken.”

The target for 2016 is to enroll 79,000 people; the hope is to hit the one million goal by 2019.

For employers, study findings could be used to improve wellness programs and develop better tools for anticipating, preventing, and managing chronic illness among employees. Findings also could be used by HR professionals overseeing health plan design to tailor benefit offerings to better meet the needs of employees who suffer from or are at risk for disease.

To read the complete article in the New York Times, click here.

For more on precision medicine, see our first post on this topic from May of 2015.