Hacking Healthcare

It's Time to Help Employees Do Benefits Better

Hack (hak) v., a clever tip or solution for getting something done

When it comes to employee health care benefits in the United States, employers are finally getting some relief. Healthcare spending increases are historically low1, and employee satisfaction with workplace benefits is historically high2. But, if employers don’t take steps to level up their employees’ benefit skills and knowledge, these gains may be at risk.

Will Healthcare Consumerism Stick?

While some of the slowdown in healthcare inflation can be attributed to the recession and a slow economic recovery, healthcare consumerism has helped. Enrollment in employer-sponsored, high-deductible healthcare plans has increased from 4 to 20 percent over the last five years.4 At a record number of employers — more than one-fourth — the plan with the highest enrollment is a high-deductible plan.3

According to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, employers offering high-deductible plans have enjoyed an average cost savings of 5 percent compared with results at companies that didn’t offer them. That fact stands regardless of whether or not all workers at a given employer took a high-deductible option.4 With results like these, healthcare consumerism is gaining more corporate converts. More than half of employers are moving toward healthcare strategies that require employees to take a more active role.5

The cost savings achieved by those high-deductible plans have stuck so far — for three years post-launch, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. But the sustainability of those savings is in no way certain. If growing consumer savvy has eliminated waste, then the promise of healthcare consumerism is being realized. But past studies have shown that increased cost sharing caused patients to reduce both necessary and unnecessary care.4 If the recent bend in the healthcare trend is coming by way of cash-strapped, sticker-shocked employees skipping the care they need, then a tidal wave of costs and sick workers could be on its way.

Help Employees Crack the Code

You probably know someone, maybe a parent, who finally went out and bought his first smartphone. He has the latest and greatest, but he can barely get it unlocked to make a call; never mind sending a group text or downloading an app.

Without information, education, and decision support, a high-deductible plan in the hands of an employee is a lot like that underutilized smartphone in the hands of your grandfather.

To most employees, a healthcare plan is an uncrackable code. More than half of employees agree that they need more help understanding how their benefits work and meet their needs. This is especially the case with younger workers. But employees are not giving up. They are willing to take on greater costs and play a bigger role in healthcare decisions, but they are asking for help.2

5 Ways to Build Better Healthcare Consumers

To the sown seeds of healthcare consumerism, education is life-giving rain. While the right communication strategy and tactics will depend on an organization’s demographics, goals, and circumstances, here are five ways an organization can help its employees hack health care and do their benefits better.

1. Make your content useful.

A recent California study showed that many high-deductible plan members don’t have a grasp of plan basics. Most didn’t know that preventive screenings, office visits, and other important care required little or no out-of-pocket payment.6 That’s useful information, and employees want it. If we can become foodies, mixologists, and do-it-yourselfers, we can become benefits connoisseurs, ninjas, and mavens. Pierce the impenetrable code of confusing lingo. Focus your communications on the decisions employees will make and the actions they will take. Help employees become confident healthcare consumers by giving them simple but highly useful tips for getting the most from their benefits day-to-day.

2. Make your content accessible.

Your company’s firewall exists to keep people out. That includes your employees when they’re not at work and the dependents your plans cover around the clock. That’s great news for your company’s intellectual property, but it’s terrible news for a frustrated parent who’s trying to plan a doctor’s visit for a sick child. Create a benefits website outside your company’s firewall. This will give employees and their dependents access to important information according to their needs and schedule.

3. Create a better benefits experience.

The experience many employees have with their benefits is like the experience they have trying to assemble a piece of furniture. It’s an unfamiliar process accompanied with horrible instructions in tiny print. It’s no surprise they’re asking for help. Once you’ve made your benefits communication more useful and accessible, strive to create a better overall experience. Recognize that your communications exist to serve your employees, and not just ERISA. Give all your benefits touch points a familiar and consistent look and feel. Don’t settle for mere accuracy and compliance. Be of service. Make it easy. Make it attractive. Make it enjoyable. A better experience can defuse frustration, produce better results, and build the confidence employees crave.

4. Keep it going year round.

Imagine if buying a car was allowed only during an annual purchasing period and all the information — prices, reviews, descriptions, and options — was made available for only about three weeks each fall. If you don’t purchase a car by the deadline, you’re out of luck for another year (unless you experience a “qualifying automotive event”). How could someone make such a big, complex buying decision in that short amount of time? Enrolling in benefits can be just as expensive and complex. Educate employees year-round. Help them use their spending account balances before the year is up. Remind them to take advantage of those free preventive care services. Have an ongoing presence in your company newsletter, the intranet, and your employees’ home mailboxes. Give employees something useful, even when they’re not expecting it. 

5. Personalize where possible.

We expect personalization from just about everything these days. Try to personalize your benefits communication where possible, too. Benefits confirmation statements are popular. Using case studies of recognizable personas can help employees tailor their choices to their own needs. Showing your employees why your company’s health plan is best suited to your workforce will reinforce their confidence and trust.


1 Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker: Measuring the Performance of the U.S. Health System http://www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/what-is-behind-the-recent-slowdown-in-health-spending/

2 MetLife’s 12th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study

3 PwC Health Research Institute, Medical cost trend: Behind the numbers 2015, June 2014, based on PwC 2014 Touchstone Survey

4 National Bureau of Economic Research, Do “Consumer-Directed” Health Plans Bend the Cost Curve Over Time?

5 Views on Employment-Based Health Benefits: Findings from the 2014 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey, by Paul Fronstin, Ph.D., Employee Benefit Research Institute, and Ruth Helman, Greenwald & Associates

6 In consumer-directed health plans, a majority of patients were unaware of free or low-cost preventive care.

Reed ME1, Graetz I, Fung V, Newhouse JP, Hsu J.


More Ideas