When in doubt, get a second opinion. This is generally good advice when it comes to health-related issues. And a growing number of employers are taking it to heart by requiring employees to get a second opinion before starting treatment for a medical problem.

According to the 2016 Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, 23% of employers have implemented expert medical and second opinion programs. That number is expected to more than double to 58% in the next two years.

In a recent article in Workforce, Jeff Levin-Scherz, national leader of Willis Towers Watson’s North American health management practice, explained that there are two reasons for the increase in employer interest in second opinion programs. First, health care has become more individualized and it’s hard for people to find the best and most qualified physicians and for physicians to give the best advice in every circumstance. Second, the options for expert second opinion programs available to employers have increased and improved.

Said Levin-Scherz, “Employers are able to gain much more valuable service for their employees in expert medical opinions now than they were a number of years ago.”

For the complete article in Workforce, 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A recent survey from Willis Towers Watson revealed that over a third (37%) of U.S. employers are changing plan designs to reduce employee out-of-pocket costs at the point of service. The same percentage of employers (37%) are lowering premiums contributions for low-income workers. By 2018, the number of employers taking these steps is expected to rise to 53% and 51%, respectively.

These findings come from the 21st Annual Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, completed by 600 employers in June and July 2016.

In the face of continued cost pressures, employers have gradually increased the amount that employees pay for employer-sponsored health care. Increases have come in the form of larger premium contributions, higher copays and coinsurance, health plans with higher deductibles, and surcharges for coverage for working spouses eligible for health insurance from their own employers. Now, however, more employers are becoming concerned that health care is becoming unaffordable, especially for low-wage workers.

Other actions employers are taking to improve affordability include seeding health savings accounts (HSAs) tied to account-based health plans (ABHPs) to help employees close the gap created by the higher deductibles associated with such plans. Of employers that offer ABHPs, 85% are seeding HSAs with an average seed amount of $600 per year for employee-only coverage and twice that amount for employees with family coverage.

These steps employers are designed to ensure employees’ physical and financial health and well-being as well as on-the job productivity. The number of employers taking similar steps is expected to rise significantly over the next two years.

Willis Towers Watson this week released a list of the top 10 questions employees should ask their employers about 2017 plan offerings before selecting new plans or renewing existing ones. The questions are based the results of our 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, which quizzed employers on their expected cost increases for 2017 and the actions they plan to take to manage costs while delivering quality care.

According to the survey, employers expect an average increase of 5.0% in total health care costs in 2017. Areas of focus for plan changes are prescription drugs, spouse and dependent coverage, and expensive medical procedures such as specialized surgeries.

In addition to questions about steps employers might have taken to keep costs down, we suggested that employees ask which health plans their preferred doctors and other providers accept; what new benefits–including voluntary benefits–employers might have added; and whether employers have introduced new technologies such as a private benefits exchange to help employees select and manage benefits.

For the complete list of 10 questions, read the press release here.

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.