As business owners gnash their teeth over yet another year of rising healthcare costs, there are a few encouraging signs: some payoffs from wellness programs, a growing use of health assessments, and evidence that some cost-control strategies are working.
A survey released by Mercer this week indicated that growth in the average total health benefit cost per employee, which had reached 6.9 percent last year, slowed in 2011 to 6.1 percent, with an increase of 5.7 expected for 2012 still well above inflation, but at least headed in the right direction. Employers have just two years (assuming healthcare reform is not overturned) before they must offer healthcare coverage to all employees working at least 30 hours a week, or face a penalty.

The efforts of large insurers such as UnitedHealthcare and WellPoint to work with employers on wellness and prevention have been widely reported, but smaller, regional carriers are also in the mix. Network Health Plan in eastern Wisconsin is reporting success with its wellness offerings for large employers, according to HealthLeaders-InterStudy analyst Ric Gross. In exchange for 60 percent participation in health risk assessments and 30 percent member achievement of healthy rewards, employers get a rate cap in the second year of a three-year contract.

Network Health Plan assigns employers a corporate wellness specialist and the option of a health coach to act as health advocates for employees. As employees reach specific health goals, they can earn up to $250 worth of rewards. The result has been lower utilization and lower claims costs than predicted. Network Health Plan says each member enrolled in the program realized between $400 and $500 in annual savings, based on comparing actual results with predicted levels derived from diagnosis and claims history. But the emphasis is not on prescription drug control, partly because the health plan expects some uptick in prescribing patterns as workers are diagnosed and put on drug therapies.

Network Health's wellness offerings track with Mercer's findings: 87 percent of large employers surveyed said they will add or strengthen programs to encourage more health-conscious behavior, making it the top long-term strategy for controlling healthcare costs. (A total of 2,844 employers completed the survey in 2011.) Most large employers (70 percent) are using health assessments, and about a third of small employers are using them, up from just 29 percent in 2009.

Policymakers and healthcare experts have been preaching long and hard on the power of preventive medicine. Clearly, employers have been listening.

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