Friday, February 1, 2008

Health Care and Employee Choice

Americans love the power to choose. Employers who wish to keep good employees long term will work with them to provide benefits that make them happy to work for them. Giving employees options for health care can be a great way for companies to keep good workers and maintain great morale on the job. Every year, lists of the top 10 best places to work are published for everyone to see what companies are the best place to be employed. In 2008, the ranking according to includes the following: 1.) Google, 2). Quicken Loans, 3.) Wegmans Food Markets, 4.) Edward Jones, 5.) Genentech, 6.) Cisco Systems, 7.) Starbucks, 8.) Qualcomm, 9.) Goldman Sachs, and 10.) Methodist Hospital Systems. Fortune surveyed about 100,000 employees at over 400 companies to compile their list of the top companies to work for in America. This is some impressive list.

But apart from unique benefits--such as on site fitness centers, scuba diving classes, on site day care, flex time, and more employee friendly options--workers want to know the most about how their employee health plan works. After the question, "How much does this job pay," every HR professional will hear, "What are the health benefits and insurance?" According to an online article from November, 2007, in the Wall Street Journal, some workers are choosing private health insurance over the employer sponsored version, especially those working at smaller companies. Employees often find it may be cheaper to get children and spouses covered with insurance purchased outside of the plan offered by the business. Employees are picking up a larger amount of expenses than ever before due to cost shifting and higher deductibles.

Also, Americans want to know more about their health plan and how it works. Employees want to be able to make more informed decisions, how their medications work and any potential side effects, what other sources are available to help them make better choices in their health care. The National Business Group on Health released phone survey results in December, 2007, and concluded that more than 70% of those contacted feel patients havae a responsibility to educate themselves about the costs for various treatment options and verify the necessity of those recommendations. Even more felt that their employers should be involved in providing them with health information. When making a decision about health care treatments, 90% of those who were surveyed would consult sources beyond their primary care physicians including the following: friends and family, websites, health plan information, media sources, and other medical materials.

The survey has stated that employers should provide a more proactive way for employees to source health information, and that employers should also reinforce the importance of employee lifestyle changes. Employees can benefit by obtaining health tips and questionnaires from their workplace, get involved in personal health coaching, and become more active in behavioral changes that lead to healthier lifestyles. Employers can help incentivize workers when they participate in these types of options provided by their companies. The conclusion of the report, published on the SHRM website last December, was that employees who choose available preventive health measures wisely can help prevent injuries, illnesses, and other health related disabilities. Employees want and should have a more integrated relationship with medical providers in order to improve and maintain healthy lifestyles. And, there is more than a really good chance the employer may pay for some of these options.

However, according to USA Today, the percentage of workers with employee sponsored insurance is shrinking. As a result, this has raised a debate about whether health insurance should be linked to employment. Also, there is anxiety among many employees who have this type of insurance that those benefits will someday be reduced substantially or altogether disappear--a possibility especially among small companies. Although it is unlikely that health insurance legislation at the federal level will be passed in 2008, there is significant pressure boiling up from the state level that is promoting fundamental changes in insurance. The Kaiser Foundation reported last year that only 60% of all employers are offering health insurance to employees--down 9% in only seven years. And when companies increase the premium costs to workers, this impacts everyone; but especially hard hit are lower income employees who must often choose to opt out of coverage or seek private consumer health insurance to cover family members.

The power of choice can be very strong and have significant impact on individuals, families and society as a whole. Employers who choose to pass costs along to their employees in order to save money for the business will have an impact far beyond the workplace. The trickle down effect makes its way into the market place, the tax base, and the economy. There can be grave consequences to families who may have to consider sacrificing lifestyle choices and preventive medical needs. Insurance companies who choose to increase premiums will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns affecting their own bottom line--shareholders, policyholders, employees, and the economy all take a hit. Workers who continue to ignore the need to make healthy behavioral changes and stay on top of their personal health will increase the costs of health care, decrease their own financial status with medical bills, and contribute to the overall decreased medical health of the community. As the old knight said in the last Indiana Jones movie, "Choose wisely!"

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

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