Employers are always looking for ways to deliver care that better meets the needs of their workforce at a lower cost. While there are finite ways of doing that, medical innovation is pushing back the barrier on what is possible in the health care space, to the benefit of all.

Here are some of the most promising health innovations coming in 2017 according to the Cleveland Clinic, as described in a recent article for Fast Company:

Diabetes Drugs That Reduce Cardiovascular Disease

Generic drugs like empaglifozin and liraglutide have the potential to blunt the effect of diabetes on the body and even positively affect related conditions such as heart disease. The implications for this discovery are huge, as nearly half of U.S. adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Health Care Systems Talking To One Another

For anyone who has found the lack of communication between different health systems frustrating, the advent of an international standard may provide a solution. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), is a draft standard and application used to exchange electronic health records that could allow hospital systems to integrate billing, insurance, and appointments more seamlessly. This standard is still fairly new, introduced in 2014 by Health Level Seven International, an international nonprofit focused on healthcare interoperability. It remains to be seen whether it will be widely adopted, but it has the potential to connect health care systems more effectively.

Bio-Dissolving Arterial Stents

Stents are small mesh tubes that can be used to temporarily prop open obstructed passageways such as blood vessels. Now a new type of stent dissolves on its own once it is no longer needed. So-called “bio-dissolving stents” are still in the early stages; only one has been approved by the FDA. But more could be on the horizon.

These are just a few of the health innovations coming soon that may shape how diseases are prevented or treated, surgeries performed, and hospital systems managed. For employers, all of these innovations have the potential to improve health outcomes for employees and provide better tools to maintain a healthy and productive workforce.

For the complete article in Fast Company, click here.

With the end of the year just around the corner, we are taking a moment to look back at the most popular posts on the OneExchange blog this year.

Most-read topics included benefits administration, telemedicine, disease management programs, and types of benefits being offered, including student loan repayment, workplace perks such as snow days, and changing PTO policies. We also got to know more about exchange innovator Sherri Bockhorst, a managing director of Willis Towers Watson’s group exchange business.

Here are some interesting tidbits from the top 10 posts:

On workplace perks: “New parents no doubt perked up (pun intended) when companies offered such benefits as unlimited parental leave (Netflix) and $4,000 in “baby cash” for the birth of a newborn (Facebook).”

On telemedicine: “The average telemedicine visit costs between $40 and $49…. This compares favorably with a visit to a primary care doctor ($110) or a trip to the emergency room ($865).”

On biosimilars: “The potential benefit [from the FDA approving more biosimilars] is huge… biosimilars could result in over $44 billion in savings on biologics between 2014 and 2024.”

Read on for the complete list of the top 10 blog posts in 2016:

  1. “Panda Days” and Paid Time Off: What Perks Perk Up Employees
  1. Employers Look To Private Medicare Exchanges As Alternative To Group Retiree Health Coverage
  1. Meet Exchange Innovator Sherri Bockhorst
  1. Little Known Rule Allows Some Seniors To Change Medicare Advantage Plans When Plans Drop Their Doctors
  1. League Of California Cities Partners With OneExchange On New Private Exchange Offering
  1. Employers Add Student Loan Repayment To Benefits Offerings To Attract Millennials
  1. Employee Well-being In The Workplace A Priority For Employers In Coming Years
  1. More Private Exchanges Adding Disease Management Programs
  2. Reimbursement Issues Plague Biosimilars
  1. Telemedicine Benefits Remain Underutilized

A recent headline in Politico Pulse pointed to a drug price transparency report from the state of Vermont that identified 10 prescription drugs that are “eating up state spending.” The top three drugs, Abilify, Lantus, and Humira, saw growth in wholesale acquisition costs over five years of 55%, 90%, and 114% respectively.

The report noted that while percentage increases in the price of generic drugs were higher, the actual dollar amounts were higher for name-brand drugs.

The top 10 drugs identified in the Vermont report are as follows:

  1. Abilify – an antipsychotic, for depression, bipolar disorder, and other conditions
  2. Lantus – name-brand insulin for treating diabetes
  3. Humira – an immunosuppressant for treating arthritis and Crohn’s Disease
  4. Enbrel – acts as TNF inhibitor to treat rheumatoid arthritis, among other diseases
  5. Crestor – a statin for treating high cholesterol
  6. Epipen – epinephrine for allergic attacks and asthma
  7. Latuda – an antipsychotic for treating schizophrenia
  8. Prevacid – a proton-pump inhibitor for treating acid reflux and heartburn
  9. Doxycycline Hyclate – an antibiotic for treating infections such as acne and gonorrhea
  10. Permethrin – an anti-parasite drug for treating lice and scabies

Among these, the Epipen has been in the headlines most recently for price hikes and a subsequent backlash against Epipen maker Mylan.

As health care costs–and especially pharma costs–continue to rise, awareness of which drugs are experiencing the largest price increases and which are most expensive is key to managing cost. Vermont’s experience with prescription drugs provides visibility into what is going on in other states and with health insurers and employers offering health insurance.

The issue is clearly on employers’ minds. According to Willis Towers Watson’s 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, 88% of large employers identified managing pharmacy spending as a top priority in the next three years.

In June of 2016, Vermont became the first state to pass a drug price transparency law, Act 165, which mandates this report.

To read the entire report, click here.

There’s more good news for employers that have chosen to self-insure rather than fully insure their employee health insurance plan offerings. According to recent Willis Towers Watson data, the projected cost increases for self-insured plans for 2017 are just 4-5% instead of 7-8%, which is the rate at which costs for fully insured plans are projected to grow.

These findings are from the Willis Towers Watson’s 2017 Marketplace Realities report, which was cited in a recent article in Employee Benefit News. While the article featured rising health costs generally, it also acknowledged employers’ increasing concern about rising pharmacy costs.

According to the Willis Towers Watson 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, nearly nine out of 10 (88%) of large employers identified pharmacy spending on high cost specialty drugs as a top priority in the next three years.

“Employers… are motivated because prescription drugs overall account for about 25% of the total cost of employer-sponsored medical benefits and an even larger percentage of growth in the cost of medical benefits,” said Nadina Rosier, North American Pharmacy practice leader for Willis Towers Watson. “Failure to act now could cost employers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years and for the foreseeable future.”

The takeaway is that with medical and pharmacy costs continuing to rise, employers that self-insure have more control over plan and program designs and can take action to keep cost increases down. Whether employers’ increased focus on pharma manages to rein in spending growth in that area remains to be seen.

For the complete article in Employee Benefit News, click here.

Incentives are a popular way to get employees to engage with wellness programs. But the carrots and sticks employers can use in wellness programs have changed recently, thanks to final rulings from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on wellness program incentives.

A recent article in Financial Advisor explored the evolution of wellness programs in light of these EEOC rulings, which limit financial incentives to 30% of the cost of an individual’s health plan.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the rulings, wellness programs continue to proliferate. While penalties (sticks) are still used, they are less common than incentives (carrots), according to Jeff Levin-Scherz, north American leader of health management for Willis Towers Watson.

“Relatively few employers use penalties except for tobacco cessation,” Levin-Scherz told Financial Advisor. “Most employers express incentives as a reward rather than a penalty.”

For the complete article in Financial Advisor, click here.

Employers are increasing their focus on managing prescription drug spending, especially high-cost specialty medications used to treat chronic illnesses.

This finding comes from the 21st annual Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, which surveyed 600 U.S. employers about their health program decisions and strategies.

“High price tags for specialty drugs are the main driver of employers more carefully examining their spending on pharmaceuticals and how they manage their employee pharmacy benefit programs,” said Nadina Rosier, North American pharmacy practice leader for Willis Towers Watson.

Previous Willis Towers Watson survey data revealed that nearly 90% of employers have identified managing pharmacy spending as their top priority over the next three years, so we will no doubt see more on this topic as employers seek solutions to manage cost.

For six common strategies employers are using to combat the rising cost of prescription drugs, see the complete press release from Willis Towers Watson here.