Health care costs continue to rise, spurred to new heights by the exponential increase in the cost of specialty pharmacy, among other things. According to the Willis Towers Watson/NBGH Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, employers expected a 4.1% rate of increase in the cost of employer-sponsored health care benefits in 2015 — the lowest in 15 years but still well above inflation.

Employers, insurers, and health care providers are all looking for new strategies to manage the rising cost of health care in 2016. Shelby Livingston covered this in a recent article for Business insurance, and spoke to Sandy Ageloff, west coast leader of Willis Towers Watson’s Health & Benefits Practice.

Employers focus on several common themes to control cost, including managing the rising cost of pharmacy, adopting high deductible health plans, and increasing adoption of health reimbursement accounts (HRAs).

One area of focus within the overall pharmacy spend is the rising cost of specialty pharmacy. “Pharmacy is the component of employee benefit plans that has the highest rate of increase right now,” said Ageloff.

For more information on the rising cost of specialty pharma specifically, see this recent Willis Towers Watson press release.

For read the complete Business Insurance article, click here.

The winter holiday season that just passed is a stressful time for many, whether because of travel anxiety, the desire to find just the right gifts, or tension between family members at holiday gatherings. But it turns out one of the greatest sources of year-round stress for many people are the environments of the organizations in which they work. In fact, according to the 2015/2016 Towers Watson* Staying@Work survey of 1,669 employers globally, fielded in June and July of 2015, workplace stress is the #1 lifestyle issue in every region except Asia Pacific, where it ranks second.

It’s no wonder reducing stress in the workplace is a primary aim of employer-sponsored wellness programs. The view is that less stress at work translates into healthier and more productive employees — and lower health care costs.

Despite their good intentions, employer wellness programs have been plagued by the unmet promise of return on investment (ROI). Programs may be reducing stress and improving employee health and productivity in the workplace, but the reality is, that gain is not reflected in the numbers. Employers recognize this disconnect, with less than half of them describing any specific aspect of their health and productivity programs as successful, where success is defined as achieving goals such as lower cost, fewer employee sick days, and reduced chronic disease and lifestyle-related risks in employee and dependent populations.

The ROI challenge does not mean, however, that employers are poised to abandon wellness programs. In fact, according to the Staying@Work survey data, 84% of employers identify health and productivity improvement as essential or moderately important to their health strategies. Additionally, 77% of these companies said they plan to increase or significantly increase their commitment to employee wellness and well-being in the next three years.

As we progress through the new year, we may see improved methods of capturing the ROI of these programs or other means of measuring their success. That remains to be seen. But it is clear that employers remain committed to programs that promise to reduce stress in the workplace well into 2016 and beyond.


For other OneExchange posts on wellness, see:

Wellness Programs and the Challenge of Pinning Down ROI

Survey Reveals Employers’ New Year’s Resolution: Employee Wellness


*Towers Watson is now Willis Towers Watson, following the merger of equals between Wills and Towers Watson on December 11, 2015.

Tension between traditional health insurance brokers and startups offering web-based and other tech-based solutions continues to rise. However, while some traditional brokers fear advanced technology solutions, others highlight their unique value add borne from years of experience as valuable differentiators.

A recent article in Business Insurance explored this classic showdown between “high tech” and “high touch.” In reality, there is room for both. For example, a seasoned broker might bring valuable wisdom to a strategy while a tech-based solution might enable a strategy to scale.

Randall K. Abbott, a North American leader and senior strategist in Willis Towers Watson’s Health and Benefits practice, noted in the article that the primary threat to traditional brokers is not competition from tech startups, but rather consumer preferences. “People want to do things just like they do on Amazon,” said Abbott.

Still, Abbott said it is “way too early to sound the death knell for brokers. Traditional brokers (will) adopt some of the new technologies to meet the needs of their consumers, and I think we’ll increasingly find that some that relied extensively on the technology will find the need to provide more personalized decision support.”

For the complete article in Business Insurance, click here. (Note: a paid subscription is required.)

Employers remain committed to the health and productivity of their workforce, driven by ongoing concerns over stress, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles among employees. A large majority (84%) of U.S. employers identify improving the health and productivity of their employees as essential or moderately important to their health strategies. In addition, 77% expect their organization’s commitment to increase or significantly increase in the next three years.

This data comes from the findings of two surveys, the 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey and the annual Global Benefit Attitudes Survey, which were completed by 1,669 employers and 30,000 employees respectively. Willis Towers Watson reported results from both surveys in a recent press release.

While this continued commitment by employers is good news, current offerings may not be engaging employees or resulting in healthier choices. According to the survey findings, only a third of employees reported that well-being initiatives offered by their employers encouraged them to live healthier lifestyles.

Employees also reported that they prefer to manage their own health (71%), and in some cases that employer offerings don’t meet their needs (32%). While 50% of employees participated in a well-being activity or health management-related program in the last year, they weren’t taking full advantage of the incentives offered. Despite an average of $880 being offered through a range of annual incentives, employees collected just $365 on average and as many as two fifths didn’t earn any incentives at all.

Shelly Wolff, senior health care consultant at Willis Towers Watson, explained the challenge for employers: “U.S. employers have long recognized that the health and productivity of their workforce can influence business success and create competitive advantage. Yet while the hot-button issues of stress and obesity remain ever-present, the numerous programs and incentives designed to combat them have failed to effectively engage employees.”

The answer, Wolff suggests, may be looking at the program offerings from a different perspective. She said, “Employers may find the key to making better progress hinges on looking at these programs through an employee’s eyes.”

Determining how exactly this needs to be done is no easy task and depends on the individual employer’s industry and the occupations their employees fill.

To read the complete press release, click here.

Willis Towers Watson’s OneExchange is now Willis Towers Watson’s Benefits Delivery and Administration.

You may have noticed that the OneExchange Blog has a new look.

Its striking purple hue reflects the corporate identity of Willis Towers Watson, formed when shareholders approved a merger of equals between Wills and Towers Watson on December 11, 2015. The newly minted company began operations on January 5, 2016 as a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company serving 90% of the world’s 500 largest companies in more than 120 countries.

The OneExchange Blog will continue uninterrupted, providing commentary on the latest health care news, sharing updates from Willis Towers Watson, and providing data-driven advice for employers managing benefits for their employees.

For more information, see our press release here, or visit the Willis Towers Watson website here.