Advances in technology have changed the way we do business in virtually every industry, and the benefits field is no exception. Benefit advisers who want to stay relevant must stay abreast of emerging technologies. But those who want to truly differentiate themselves from the competition need to leverage technology in creative and innovative ways, not only to improve their own internal systems, but also to offer new solutions for employer clients.

Benefits firm WorkforceTactix Inc. is doing just that. Formerly named Group Insurance Solutions, Chairman Jonathan Anders says the Sparks, Md.-based company in 2010 changed its name and its focus to employ technology and data analytics as a way to forecast an employer’s high health spend and offer clients new solutions to tackle their rising health care costs in the process.

At the same time, he says, “we wanted to create a market differentiator from the status quo of offering the same three choices employers had at benefits renewal: shop their plan, change their plan design, or change their employee contributions.”

“Typically, when employers are getting reports as it relates to their health plans and their benefits, it’s all very retrospectively driven — top claimants, top diagnosis codes, etc. It’s all very much the rear-view mirror approach. What we’re really trying to do is to look through the windshield,” says Scott Mayer, vice president of data analytics with WorkforceTactix. “While it’s important to know where you’ve been, most CFOs want to know where they’re going. They want a budget and they want to know how they’re staying on track with that budget.”

Driving by rear view mirror, Anders adds, is dangerous and “has not proven effective for many years when it comes to cost control. Our choice was to focus on perfecting the management of risk and to use technology to help us get there.”

Anders says the tools the company has used in this area “have definitely helped us win business, grow in the large-group market, and open many eyes in the C-suite with our data-driven approach.”

Health app

As part of its data-driven approach, the benefits firm is working with tech company Digital Health Innovations (DHI) to offer employers and their employees an easy-to-use technology solution that helps employees track and improve their health at the same time as it collects reams of useful data. In fact, Anders also serves as executive vice president of business and corporate development for DHI.

Although Bob Blonchek, president of DHI, says his original vision in 2009 for the product, called HealthJibe, was a direct-to-consumer model, he “quickly realized that employers are the ones that pay the bills for health care” — a revelation that led to the partnership with Anders, and allowed him to deliver the product in an “employer-focused way.”

Through the use of data analytics, wearable and other wireless devices, and DHI’s HealthJibe app, the companies are putting together a technology platform that moves beyond wellness and offers to tackle an employer’s health care costs through plan design and consumer solutions.

Similar to Apple’s recently unveiled HealthKit app, the HealthJibe app can track an individual’s weight, blood pressure, activity and other lifestyle factors; issue alerts in real-time when important preventive health screenings are due; and even allow the user to share health information with friends and health care providers.

But the technology platform behind the HealthJibe app moves past the individual consumer focus of Apple’s HealthKit app or the Fitbit wearable wellness craze and analyzes the tracked data of an employee group, including from Wi-Fi devices and health care claims, to identify risks and trends and produce concrete plan solutions to tackle an employer’s rising health care costs.

“When we’re developing the reports and the dashboards for the employer, we’re looking at the financials, as well as using all of the data to develop risk categories for the members and prospective and actuarial risk indicators to identify future spend,” says Mayer. “That way, we can try to predict where the next big claimants are coming from so we can intervene.”

He adds, “We can forecast how much the employer is going to be spending with those claimants, but also try to make that spend lower. We can identify not just the health conditions that have been driving cost, but also the health conditions that will be driving cost.”  

Agnosticism

The marriage of the data analytics and the HealthJibe app is what sets the HealthJibe platform apart from similar wearable wellness programs or consumer-based health apps, Mayer says.

“I see aspects of these approaches being used, but HealthJibe is the big differentiator and that’s why WorkforceTactix is working so closely with HealthJibe. There are consultants and advisers out there recommending devices to help individuals track their own personal metrics. There are consultants out there recommending the utilization of telehealth to drive down the costs of urgent care. There are consultants and advisers out there that are using data analytics based on claims data. HealthJibe is aggregating all of that information into one repository. It’s putting it in an app form so the member can look, touch, feel it all in one place.”

Other wellness vendors, Anders says, are offering information in a silo. “We want to be an aggregator of all that data and simplify it for the computer,” Anders adds.

Additionally, Mayer notes, HealthJibe is agnostic to devices. It doesn’t favor the Fitbit, for example, or require all employees to own an iPhone. It works with all devices and platforms.

“The most successful consultants and brokers moving forward are going to retain that level of agnosticism with technology,” Mayer says. “We’re trying to create something where it doesn’t matter who your carrier is.

It doesn’t matter who pays the claims or what device you’re wearing. It doesn’t matter. You can use a Fitbit, a Jawbone, whatever. What matters is that you’re on a platform that can engage whatever you want to engage.”

He adds, in terms of technology, that level of agnosticism is what’s going to help advisers be successful in the future — “that ability to be flexible and nimble and not necessarily drive what’s in their best interest but what’s in the best interest of their clients and their employees.”

Educated consumerism

At its core, the HealthJibe app is designed to drive down health care costs by making employers and employees better health care consumers.

“In finance, when financial information gets into the hands of consumers, it drives down the cost of financial transactions. So the idea was: If we can get health information into the hands of consumers, maybe we can drive down the cost of health care in the same way. That was sort of the genesis of HealthJibe,’” says Blonchek.

DHI launched a Web-based version of the app in 2013 and has rolled it out to about a dozen employer clients so far, servicing about 15,000 lives on the platform. By the end of this year the company will launch its mobile strategy, focusing on a mobile version of the app, Blonchek says.

On an individual level, the app aims to inform, create awareness and incentivize healthy behaviors.

Specifically, the app targets metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that the National Institutes of Health says “raises your risk for heart disease and other health problems such as diabetes or stroke.”

The app provides “real-time awareness and guidance” based on data collected from wireless devices such as a Fitbit or other wearable wellness device, wireless scales, blood pressure cuffs, etc. It also takes feeds from medical and pharmacy claim depositories and “nudges the user along toward living a better life,” says Blonchek.

Digital daily routine

Through regular use of the app and these devices, the employee earns cash incentives. Points are earned through the app for activities such as walking a certain number of steps a day, checking weight and blood pressure, etc. One hundred points earned through the app equals $100 cash incentive, in the form of a pre-paid reward card funded by the employer.

“We’re trying to make it part of their daily digital routine,” says Blonchek. “Everybody has a digital routine, checking e-mail in the morning, reading a tablet at night. We’re just saying that when you pick up your smart phone in the morning, also put on a wearable activity tracker. When you’re checking your text messages in the morning, step on a wireless scale once a week.”

HealthJibe uses that data to inform the user about their risk factors and also analyzes the data for the employer to target their health care spend.

“A lot of employers are doing wellness programs now and they’ll offer you a premium discount for, say, getting a biometric screening done. But they’re also realizing it’s not making much of an impact,” says Mayer. “HealthJibe is incentivizing above and beyond these one-off behaviors.”

Employees earn points for activities and actions that can have a significant impact on an individual’s health, including filling prescriptions at a pharmacy or checking blood sugar for a diabetic, he says.

“We see a lot of employers offering a lot of ‘things and stuff’ in a wellness program and they are very content-rich wellness programs, but with low participation rates,” Anders adds. “What we’ve learned is that people don’t necessarily do what you expect. They do what you inspect.”

In the future, Mayer says, HealthJibe will evolve as a platform to transmit the rewards information through a benefits administration system or payroll system, so that payroll deductions or incentives can be administered seamlessly with no additional work by the employer’s HR department.

DHI is also looking into a tie-in with an HSA administrator to allow for incentives to be distributed directly into an employee’s HSA, according to Anders.

A brave new world

Blonchek says incentivizing risk mitigation in this way should be a focus for all employers hoping to cut health care costs — and the benefit advisers who hope to serve them.

“The aspect of brokers in the new world is less about leading employers to public or private exchanges and more so about identifying, managing, mitigating, reducing or stabilizing risk,” he says, adding that the most effective way to do so is through economic incentives for employees.

“While some employees might find it invasive in the very beginning, we’re really trying to help them put a value on their health that they may not do on their own,” Blonchek says. “It’s about telling them that their employer can only manage health care cost to the extent with which they understand their risk. So, if you’re not accessing the system and you’re not generating claims for any type of forensic analysis, but you have high cholesterol, how does that help manage risk? We’re not going to know about it until you’re whisked away in an ambulance.”

Committing employers to the use of a new technology or program such as HealthJibe can be a difficult sell, considering many don’t want to upset their employee base. But, Mayer says the return on investment is there for those employers willing to dive in. 

“There are a lot of employers that are fearful of backlash for any change, because people don’t like change, especially with technology and how quickly technology moves and new methodologies and new ways of thinking can come about,” says Mayer. “A lot of the time, the employer will try to ease their way into a wellness program or complete a participatory model, in which the incentives are much less tangible, based on the fact that they’re trying not to upset the apple cart. But unless there’s top-down buy-in … employers are not going to get the results that they want by easing into it. If the employer is not committed to it, why would the employee be committed to it?”

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