Benefits providers strive to meet clients’ wellness needs

Most of the big names have made new moves into wellness and health promotion

There is change afoot among Canada’s benefits providers. Seems they’ve heard the anguished cries of exasperated HR departments struggling with unmanageable benefit rate increases, and are exploring new, unconventional remedies to prevent, not cure, the pain.

In the last year or so, most of the big shops have made new moves into wellness and health promotion, offering products and services (such as online health assessments), partnering with other wellness experts and mining claims data for clues about potential wellness solutions.

A year ago, Manulife Financial launched its “Health for Life” products, a new suite of tools for clients interested in wellness and health promotion, including a new partnership with EAP provider Wilson Banwell, an online health library and health risk assessment.

In 2004, Medavie Blue Cross (formerly Atlantic Blue Cross Care) launched the pilot Inspire at work Asthma Care Program to shed light on how improved asthma control affects health outcomes, quality of life and productivity and just this year the company added an employee assistance program and prevention drug modules to its services.

Employers are getting frustrated by consistent double-digit increases and are asking for alternatives. Eventually insurers have to respond, said Ed Buffett, president and CEO of Whitby-Ont. based Buffett Taylor and Associates, a workplace wellness and benefits consulting firm.

“They are being forced to take a risk management approach,” he said. Historically employers have been required by governments to take basic health and safety steps and precautions to reduce the number of workplace accidents and keep worker compensation claims down. It’s basic risk management, and there is no reason similar philosophies on prevention shouldn’t be applied by employers and insurers to reduce, or at least rein in, other benefits claims, he said.

This is new for big insurance providers. “The life insurance industry has never been in the risk management business,” he said. In effect, they had little motivation to do so. “Frankly, the more claims, and the more costly the claims, the more money they made. But now employers are saying, ‘Wait a second. That is no longer acceptable. We have to be partners in (controlling costs).’”

Consequently, insurance providers are feeling the pressure to change to meet client needs. A similar transition has happened in the world of business technology, he said. People no longer just buy hardware from IBM; they go to IBM because they want “solutions,” he said. The insurance industry could witness a similar transformation and each company will feel the pressure to adjust.

“If they can, in some way shape or form, distinguish themselves from their competitors because they are more effective at managing the whole risk piece, then people are going to want to deal with them. (That’s) if they position themselves as partners, as opposed to deliverers of a specific service.”

Green Shield Canada is working on a two-part “Benefit Insight” strategy to offer new products and services to its clients to help with their wellness challenges, said Diane Hartley, vice-president of strategic health management technologies.

Right now, the company is still in phase one, partnering with 15 client organizations to identify individual organizational needs and concerns, and ways to work with those clients to conduct customized future trending based on demographics, she said.

“We are offering a very focused approach,” she said. Improving wellness can’t be done in “shotgun” manner. Specific problems have to be addressed with specific strategies. Clients are saying they need better information about health problems. Green Shield has ready access to a wealth of that data, it just has to be repackaged to paint a clearer picture of organizational health, she said. “It gives us a cause and effect for their claims costs,” she said.

In the second phase, Green Shield will partner with experts to introduce wellness programs to address targeted problems and concerns.

As a niche player that only focused on providing health benefits, the company has always retained a great deal of workplace health expertise, she said.

But a new focus on wellness represents a significant shift in strategic focus, she said. The lessons learned from these projects will enable Green Shield to offer new products and services to other clients, and the company is already looking to add people with wellness and health promotion skills to support clients, she said.

Benefits providers have all felt compelled to offer more wellness-related assistance to clients, said Mike Sampson, vice-president of group marketing for Winnipeg-based Great-West Life Assurance.

Most companies are getting involved with this in some fashion, he said. “We want to be the ones providing our clients with workable answers.”

It is true that, historically, benefits providers made more money when claims rates were high, he said. “But there is a limit to that and if we don’t help our clients to improve their position, then someone else will,” he said.

“We have been working on this in a sort of serious way for over a year now.”

A lot of organizations feel like they have tried everything in terms of plan changes (co-insurance and altered formularies) and still see costs going up, he said.

“We don’t get clients coming to us and saying, ‘How can I have a healthier workplace?’ But they say, ‘I have tried all the traditional stuff, now what can I do?’”

In light of factors such as an aging workforce, it just isn’t realistic for the provider to say it can reduce plan costs, he said. What it can do is to stabilize or reduce the demand for some services.

For now, the focus at Great-West Life is providing clients with more and better information, he said. There is a lot of data out there about work-related problems, but it is mostly for the general population. It is difficult for an individual organization to get numbers on wellness and employee health problems.

The difficulty is measuring the effect of wellness programs, he said. Great-West Life is working with external consultants to develop workplace health metrics and some predictive models for wellness programs.

“This will not be a big money-maker,” he said. “There are not new revenue streams here.” It is simply a change driven by competitive changes in the market to ensure clients feel they are being well-served and therefore willing to stay with the company.

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