January 11, 2017
I’m Rob Harkins, private exchange practice leader for mid-market employers, for Willis Towers Watson’s private exchange business sector.
As part of the Health and Benefits segment, it’s my mission to ensure satisfaction internally, as well as externally, with our leading mid-market clients, accessing a modernized technological approach to benefit delivery, whether their need is individual Medicare, pre-65 retiree benefits, or group coverage.
I’ve been heavily involved during the merger of Willis and Towers Watson, enhancing the transition and acting as a bridge between our Health & Benefits consulting group and our base of mid-market employers, with populations ranging from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.
My health insurance roots
I cut my teeth on exchanges at Extend Health – a start-up that was acquired by Towers Watson in 2012. Having worked on Medicare Advantage with a focus on state and public sector employers, I was a steward for our channel partner relationships between consultants that wanted to provide a private Medicare exchange to their clients, including Towers Watson and Willis. I eventually moved from Extend Health to become the exchange practice leader at Willis. Collaborating with Liazon, I developed the Willis private exchange platform. In the process, I kicked the tires on every private exchange in the market in order to create something that would deliver true value to our employer clients and their employees.My education was in health care administration, which provided a terrific springboard for my career. I’ve worked in a range of companies, from start-ups to major national health insurance carriers, and this breadth of experience helped me to develop products and solutions that synched with innovation in the health care space.
My attention and focus is always drawn to what we can do operationally to innovate with technology and engage employees. I’ve always been the change agent. My true passion is looking at what is on the horizon and integrating the very best components of the past, present and the future into one integrated vision. One of my strengths is getting employers to understand how and when change can be beneficial. I believe in identifying various opportunities that can bring clients value, and then helping them get there by painting that picture for them.
Where I see health insurance going
One of the top reasons employers are now turning to private exchanges is the changing workforce.
A digitally savvy younger workforce does not want to access benefits from an antiquated system. They just don’t. No one wants to get into a car and wind down a window or push a button to lock a door. Health exchanges are to benefit delivery what the smartphone has been to the telephone.
The benefits world moves very slowly, especially when it comes to employers who have a very paternalistic approach to employees. But how can we continue to deliver on paper or in a clunky benefit administration system that has to rival the ease with which we can buy cars? The system has to be very sophisticated.
Private exchanges are bringing benefits into the 21st century—with access and choice. Ten years from now, everyone will be using exchanges, because the way it was done yesterday just can’t continue. Once you change technology, there’s no going back. The dial-up phone is gone.
I believe that there will be gradual embracing of all the components that are part and parcel of the technology enhancements exchanges bring.
We all learned how to shop online—no one gave us a training manual. We all figured it out, and our culture changed around the technology, and the technology was very agile and responsive. And that’s what the exchange platform is: It’s a new way of doing things.
To reach me for comment on an article or a presentation, contact Melanie Meharchand, Director of PR and Social Media for Exchange Solutions, Willis Towers Watson.
December 28, 2016
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.
December 26, 2016
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:
- Little Known Rule Allows Some Seniors To Change Medicare Advantage Plans When Plans Drop Their Doctors
December 12, 2016
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.
December 6, 2016
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.
November 21, 2016
Do fitness wearables in the workplace really work? This was the question posed in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune.
Even as more employers are offering fitness wearables to their employees, the article pointed out that it remains to be seen how effective they are at helping them achieve better health outcomes or reduce health care costs.
According to Willis Towers Watson employer survey data, presented in the article, 31% of large employers now offer wearable fitness trackers to their employees; another 23% reported considering offering them in the next two years.
In addition to questions about effectiveness, there are also those who have privacy concerns and wonder about the ethics of rewarding employees for wellness program participation or penalizing them for failing to meet wellness goals.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued several rulings recently related to wellness programs and their administration. Fitness tracking devices fall under the guidance of these rulings, and employers are advised to stay up to date on rules to stay compliant.
To read the article in the Chicago Tribune, click here.
October 27, 2016
As the open enrollment period for employer-sponsored insurance approaches, there is one benefit that employers hope employees will take more advantage of: telemedicine.
Of the estimated 1.2 billion outpatient visits last year, just 1 million were conducted using telemedicine, according to Willis Towers Watson data.
Why haven’t employees flocked to telemedicine? According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, it’s possible they don’t understand it, don’t know it’s available, or are skeptical of getting a doctor’s opinion without physically being with a doctor. However, it isn’t because the service is more expensive: it’s not. The average telemedicine visit costs between $40 and $49 and some employers don’t require an employee contribution, covering 100% of the fee, said Willis Towers Watson senior consultant Dr. Allan Khoury, who was interviewed for the article. This compares favorably with a visit to a primary care doctor ($110) or a trip to the emergency room ($865).
Regardless of why employees are slow to adopt telemedicine, Dr. Khoury advises employers to figure it out and put in place strategies for accelerating adoption, starting with increased employee education. There’s a lot of money to be saved through telemedicine that won’t be realized until employees start using it.
To read the article in the Chicago Tribune, click here.
October 25, 2016
In a twist on the famous lament of Kermit the Frog, it ain’t easy being an HR professional for a multi-state employer. Ok, so that isn’t as catchy as the original. But the reality is multi-state employers must address the varying state and local laws governing employee benefits and that can be complicated and time consuming.
Take paid sick leave, for example. In a recent article on the topic in Human Resource Executive, Jackie Reinberg, senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, said, “The issues most employers are really struggling with is that systems are not easily adjusted for all of the different localities. A number of them are keeping spreadsheets because they just do not have the bandwidth right now to update all of the systems.”
This is especially challenging because some state and local laws include part-time workers, expanding the number of employees employers need to take into consideration when designing a paid sick leave policy.
To complicate matters even more, starting next year federal law will require employers who contract with the federal government to provide 7 days of paid sick leave. The clock is ticking for multi-state employers to comply with the law and make other modifications to their sick leave policies that are affected by it.
To read the article in Human Resource Executive, click here.
October 20, 2016
Health benefits are a big part of attracting and retaining talent and employers are always on the lookout for benefits offerings that are attractive to potential new hires and appealing to their existing workforce.
One benefit that is gaining in popularity is adoption assistance. A recent article in Workforce reported that the hotel chain Hilton Corp. has added the benefit, including both a stipend to cover the expenses of the adoption process and a broader parental leave program. Both are slated to go into effect in January 2017.
According to Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader of absence, disability management and life at Willis Towers Watson, who contributed to the article, adoption assistance stipends average $10,000, and can range from $5,000 to as high as $25,000.
Just 20% of employers offer it in 2016, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Employee Benefits Survey. But Reinberg expects widespread adoption (pun intended) of the benefit as employers modernize their benefits programs.
To read the article in Workforce, click here.
October 13, 2016
According to a new survey from Willis Towers Watson, employers are increasing their efforts to achieve better health outcomes for their employees at a lower cost by implementing value-based reimbursement and payment arrangements with health insurers and providers.
This finding comes from the 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey. The survey included responses from 600 U.S. employers between June and July 2016, who collectively employ 12.2 million full-time employees.
A recent article in Workforce highlighted findings from the survey and the strategies needed to implement them. Value-based strategies employers plan to use include establishing centers of excellence (COEs) for specialty services through health plans, separate providers, or third-party vendors; implementing high performance networks; and contracting directly with service providers to secure improved pricing.
When it comes to establishing centers of excellence, one big factor to consider is the region, according to Sarah Oliver, senior consultant and health care delivery leader for Willis Towers Watson.
“We’re seeing a movement looking at strategies on a regional basis,” said Oliver. “Depending how big the population is, employers are looking for locations where they have a higher concentration of employees in order to make meaningful impact if they do implement a center of excellence. All of this would be grounded in data and what the underlying issues are.”
For the complete release from Willis Towers Watson, click here.
For the article in Workforce on the findings, click here.