According to results from the 2016 Willis Towers Watson Voluntary Benefits and Services Survey, 92% of U.S. employers believe voluntary benefits and services (VBS) will be important to the employee value proposition over the next three to five years. In addition to acknowledging the importance of voluntary benefits, employers also are adding new types to meet the needs of a more diverse, multigenerational workforce.

Examples of benefits being offered include identity theft protection, offered by 35% of respondents in 2015 and increasing to 70% in 2018; critical illness insurance, increasing from 44% to 73%; and student loan repayment programs, expected to quadruple from 4% to 26%.

The appeal of voluntary benefits is simple, said voluntary benefits leader Amy Hollis: “These programs enrich traditional benefits by offering a high level of personalization to employees while leveraging group purchasing power. Moreover, because these programs are voluntary, they add little or no cost to employers.”

Adding a benefit that does not require a significant increase in cost for employers and that offers personalized benefits attractive to a more diverse workforce is a win for everyone.

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

Covering a spouse under an employee’s health insurance plan is getting more expensive as employers seek to manage the rising cost of health benefits.

According to the 2015 Willis Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health (NBGH) Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, 56% of employers have increased employee contributions to health care coverage for spouses. An additional 25% plan to do so by 2018.

In addition, when an employee’s spouse has access to his or her own employer-provided coverage, more employers are using spousal surcharges; usage will more than double from 27% to 56% by 2018. These surcharges aren’t inexpensive: the average surcharge for spouses among all employers surveyed is currently $1,200 per year.

In explaining why employers are changing the terms of spousal coverage, Randall K. Abbott, senior health and benefits strategist for Willis Towers Watson, said, “Given the high cost of health care, companies no longer want their plans to be spouse magnets, which may incur thousands of dollars a year in additional health care expenses, when spouses have access to coverage through their own employers.”

Results from the survey showed that total health care cost for an employee, shared between the employer and employee, is expected to rise from $12,041 (as of 2015) nearly 5% to $12,643 (2016).

“Assessing the actual costs for spouses and determining how to best manage them can help create more efficient health care plans and avoid or reduce additional across-the-board increases in employee contributions,” said Abbott.

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

Three years after employers first began to adopt private health insurance exchanges for their active employees, exchange providers have expanded the focus of their offerings to include programs with the potential to improve health outcomes by engaging employees in their own health. Chief among them are disease management programs, which help employers identify which employees with expensive chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease need help in coordinating care for them and provide such help.

In a recent article in Employee Benefit News (EBN) on exchange-based disease management programs, Sherri Bockhorst, managing director of Exchange Solutions for Willis Towers Watson, said that employers adopting Willis Towers Watson’s OneExchange can opt in to delivering the company’s industry-leading Custom Care Management Unit (CCMU) on the exchange. Employers using CCMU have reduced hospital admissions by up to 30% per 1,000 lives and cut readmissions by up to 50%.

According to Bockhorst, CCMU offered on OneExchange means that mid-market employers now have access to a best-in-class comprehensive disease management program that has been traditionally been reserved for large employers.

Bockhorst also noted that disease management programs should be integrated with other well-being programs to ensure early intervention and to enable employees in an exchange “to make better decisions that keep them out of disease management.”
For the full article in EBN, click here.

Dr. Allan Khoury is not afraid to be a guinea pig in his own experiments at the cutting edge of telemedicine.

In a recent bylined article for Employee Business news (EBN), Dr. Khoury, senior health management consultant for Willis Towers Watson and a physician, described his experience recording his own heart and lung sounds via a smartphone app and transmitting them to a connected medical kit designed for home use.

It’s just a matter of time, Dr. Khoury predicted, before apps like the one he tested are used to transmit patient health data directly to doctors, who can then diagnose and prescribe a drug remotely, for a fraction of the cost of a regular doctor’s visit. And he is confident in the future savings and convenience that will result in widespread telemedicine use, assuming that telemedicine visits are used appropriately for relatively simple medical problems.

This is good news both for employees unable or unwilling to take the time off work and for employers looking to minimize the time employees spend away from work to help offset the high costs of employer-sponsored health care.

A major obstacle, however, is employees don’t yet understand the best ways to use telemedicine and so far, adoption has been slow. According to a Willis Towers Watson study on telemedicine, just 10% of visits that could have been handled via telemedicine actually took place through that method.

Dr. Khoury advises employers that would like to take full advantage of the promise of telemedicine to devote sufficient time and resources to making sure their employees know when and how to use it. Just as with previous advances in types and venues of care, the more employees know, the more they will go.

For the full article in EBN, click here.

Disease sufferers are increasingly forgoing necessary drugs as the percentage of the cost they are expected to pay continues to rise, according to a recent USA Today article.

This is just one more example of the problems associated with the rising cost of prescription drugs. While headlines tend to focus on the rising cost of specialty pharmaceuticals, such as the Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi and the price hiking of the HIV drug Daraprim by much-maligned former Turing CEO Martin Shkreli, more common drugs are experiencing costs spike as well.

According to Nadina Rosier, North America health and benefits practice leader of pharmacy for Willis Towers Watson, employers that cover these drugs are trying to manage the costs of pharmacy both to protect their bottom line and to avoid having to pass these costs on to employees who need the medications and might not be able to pay.

One strategy for employers, according to Rosier, is to exclude certain expensive, name-brand medications from coverage in order to shift people to less expensive but equally effective generic drugs.

According to the 2016 Willis Towers Watson/NBGH Best Practices in Health Care Survey, ways employers can manage the rising cost of pharmacy include:

  • Adopting a high performance formulary with limited brand coverage (the preference for generics alluded to above)
  • Evaluating and addressing specialty drug cost through the medical benefit (which is often unaccounted for, compared to costs that go through the pharmacy benefit)
  • Excluding compound drugs.

To read the complete article in USA Today, click here.

Some might think it’s counterintuitive to use a benefit that gets employees out of the office to keep them happy and engaged while they are in the office. But as Mary Tavarozzi, group benefit practice leader of Willis Towers Watson, explained in a recent bylined article for Employee Benefit News (EBN), a well-designed leave policy should do exactly that.

According to Tavarozzi, many satisfied and productive employees stay that way by not becoming burnt out and overworked on the job. These are the ones who take advantage of leave policies and want to come back.

Citing some generous leave policies that have made headlines recently from companies such as Netflix and Microsoft, Tavarozzi reviewed some of the many types of leaves employers can offer. At the same time, she noted that leaves are one of the most costly benefits employers can provide, and advised them to use caution when designing and implementing leave policies.

For employers looking to refresh or expand their leave policies to meet the changing needs of a more diverse workforce, Tavarozzi offered six tips for designing effective leave policies.

To read what Tavarozzi has to say, read the complete EBN article.

Willis Towers Watson employer surveys consistently find that stress is the number one workplace issue. In fact, according to researchers at Harvard and Stanford, at least 120,000 deaths each year can be attributed to workplace stress and stress accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs annually. But while employers and employees can agree that stress is a major problem at work, they disagree on its causes.

In a recent bylined article for Employee Benefit News, Willis Towers Watson senior consultant Tom Davenport discussed recent survey findings and the sharp disconnect between the views of employers and employees. According to the 2015/2016 Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey, employers tended to identify issues related to organizational change as the top causes of stress. By contrast, employees pointed to their immediate work environment and company culture, according to the 2015/2016 Towers Watson Global Benefit Attitudes Survey.

Observing that until employers get in synch with employees on causes of stress, Davenport noted that employers are unlikely to be successful at making the changes required to address the problem. As a starting point, Davenport recommended employers take a close look at company culture and he offered advice on three primary areas of focus.

To learn more about the data and Davenport’s top recommendations, click here to read his article in EBN.

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