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.

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.

A trend toward coinsurance over copays results in Medicare beneficiaries paying higher out-of-pocket prices for their prescription drugs. It also makes it harder for seniors to predict costs because drug prices fluctuate.

Unlike copays, which are flat rates, coinsurance rates are based on a percentage of total costs. Coinsurance was previously limited to higher cost specialty drugs, but its adoption in other drug tiers now is increasing.

According to an analysis from Avalere Health, reported in a recent article in Kaiser Health News, more than half (56%) of drugs covered under the Part D Medicare benefit will use a coinsurance model in 2016. Medicare Advantage plans are also making the change, but at a much lower pace. Just 26% of drugs offered through Medicare Advantage plans will require coinsurance in 2016.

Rising pharmacy costs have been a concern not just for seniors on Medicare, but for health care consumers and providers generally. Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) have been working to manage the rising cost of drugs to avoid passing on higher costs to employees.

To learn more about the Avalere analysis, click here. To read the complete article in Kaiser Health News, click here.

According to new data from Willis Towers Watson, 56% of U.S. employers are confident that the public exchange will be “a viable option” for pre-65 retirees within the next two years. The data comes from the 2016 Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, which gathered responses from 467 employers representing 12.1 million employees.

Additionally, the survey found that 72% of employers intend to make moderate to significant changes to their existing pre-65 retiree health benefits. The willingness of employers to make these changes can be attributed to the continued rise in health care costs for this segment of the employee population. In other words, costs rise, and employers need to take action.

In a recent article for Business Insurance, John Barkett, senior director of policy affairs for Willis Towers Watson, said, “Employers are seeking alternatives to providing their retirees with the same group health care coverage they offer active employees. Many employers have already transitioned their post-65 retirees to original Medicare plus private individual Medicare plans or are planning to. This keeps costs down and retiree satisfaction up. However, because Medicare is not available to younger retirees, employers are looking elsewhere for a solution.”

To read the article in Business Insurance, click here.

To read the complete press release from Willis Towers Watson, click here.

The doctor is in. But in this case, “in” could mean in your home.

A recent article in Kaiser Health News highlighted the first-year results of a pilot program, called Independence at Home, run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) to test whether in-home care provided by 17 medical practices for Medicare beneficiaries could improve outcomes for people with multiple chronic conditions while saving money. The answer? According to the CMS, “Yes.”

In fact, the CMS analysis found that participants saved more than $25 million in the first performance year, an average of $3,070 per person. In addition, all 17 participating practices improved quality in at least three of the six quality measures; four practices met all six quality measures.

Doctors going to their patients, as opposed to having them come into the office, saved Medicare $13,600 per patient in Portland, Oregon and $12,000 per patient in Washington, D.C. While this method of delivering care seems antiquated, it has proven to be effective at saving money. The savings comes, at least in part, from reduced emergency room visits and hospital readmissions, and the ability to monitor patients’ chronic illnesses before they worsen.

“House calls go back to the origins of medicine, but in many ways I think this is the next generation,” said Dr. Patrick Conway, head of the CMS Innovation Center, which oversees the program.

Congress has authorized the program through October 2017. It remains to be seen whether the program will be re-authorized with support to extend it nationwide.

For the complete article in Kaiser Health News, click here.

New data from a recent Willis Towers Watson survey of U.S. employers showed that 75% ranked stress as their number one employee health and productivity concern. However, a comparison of the views of employers and employees based on the employer survey and a concurrent survey of U.S. employees revealed a significant disconnect on what the two groups consider to be the top causes of workplace stress.

These findings are from the Willis Towers Watson’s 2015/2016 Global Staying@Work Survey of 487 U.S. employers and the Willis Towers Watson’s 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey of more than 5,000 employees.

When asked to identify the primary sources of stress in the workplace, employers and employees overlapped in just one of their three top choices, “inadequate staffing.” Employees consistently identified issues related to their personal workplace experience, such as low pay. In contrast, employers focused more on larger organizational and change management issues.

According to Steve Nyce, senior economist at Willis Towers Watson, these differences are an obstacle to employers interested in reducing workplace stress. “To address workplace stress, employers first need to understand its root cause from their employees’ point of view,” said Nyce. “Those who base their efforts on misguided assumptions risk trying to solve the wrong problems, and could end up wasting money and alienating employees. A good place for employers to start is by asking employees directly what’s causing their stress and how they can help.”

To read the press release from Willis Towers Watson, click here.

Employers are increasingly concerned with ensuring their employees are healthy and productive in the workplace. According to new survey data from Willis Towers Watson, 64% of U.S. employers said that developing a workplace culture supporting employee well-being is a primary strategy to boost health engagement. In layman’s terms, employers believe that employee happiness with the workplace is one key to a healthy workforce.

These are the findings of 2015/2016 Willis Towers Watson Staying@Work Survey, and mark a significant shift in employer attitudes. One year ago, just one-third (34%) of employers identified employee well-being as a primary strategy.

The shift is part of an emerging focus on a broader definition of wellness that is leading employers to implement new programs. One example is programs to promote financial health, including new voluntary benefits such as student loan assistance.

Focusing on a more holistic view of employee well-being has benefits both for employees and for the company as a whole, according to Shelly Wolff, senior health care consultant at Willis Towers Watson. Of the findings, Wolff said, “As the well-being of employees and their families is enhanced, employers are better positioned to achieve bottom-line goals, improve benefit cost management and lower absenteeism. What’s more, they’ll also have happier, healthier and more engaged employees.”

Jeff Levin-Scherz, senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, explained in an article for Business Insurance the importance of employers engaging fully in employee wellbeing initiatives. Said Levin-Scherz, “Employers increasingly are understanding that to make a measurable difference in employees’ overall health and productivity, they must drive well-being initiatives deeper into the organization and embed them in employees’ day-to-day work experience.”

For more data employer attitudes towards employee wellness, see the press release on the Willis Towers Watson website.

To read the complete article in Business Insurance, click here.

Over the next four years, 78% of employers anticipate making moderate to significant changes to their health plan design and vendor strategies. The goal of these changes is to keep cost increases at the current level, 4%, which was the smallest increase in 15 years (but still twice the Consumer Price Index).

These are the findings of the Willis Towers Watson 2016 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, which surveyed 467 large employers, collectively representing 12.1 million employees.

The survey also found that while new requirements under the Affordable Care Act have been a source of concern generally, 70% of employers said the recent two-year delay of the Cadillac tax has had a small or even negligible impact on their health care strategies for next year.

Some strategies employers are adopting to manage cost increases include adopting telemedicine, centers of excellence, high performance provider networks, onsite or near-site health centers, and technology to improve employee engagement.

To read more on plans employers have for managing health care costs, click here.

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