Today, more and more advisers and their clients are looking to an employee assistance program as a source of health and wellness benefits.
That makes sense because of the behavioral health underpinnings of EAPs, which can impact the behaviors of employees; thus providing a trusted partner to help improve the overall health habits of employees.
"EAP and wellness programs, which were traditionally more siloed, are merging," confirms Dorothea Allen, V.P. of marketing at Ceridian, one of the nation's largest EAPs, with just over 18 million members.
What's driving this uptick in interest in EAPs' wellness components? Several factors, starting with health care reform.
"Obviously health care reform has put a lot of media attention on preventative care and wellness," says Allen. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act created several preventative care initiatives, as well as grants for qualifying wellness programs.
But the law also galvanized plan sponsors by what it didn't do - constrain the rising cost of health care, says Dr. Michele Dodds, V.P. of Health and Wellness at ComPsych, the nation's largest EAP provider.
"I think employers realize that PPACA is not a panacea - it's not going to save them from this continuing cost increase year after year. And they really need to take action. Wellness programs are one tool in a toolbox that will help impact future costs," she adds.
Allen agrees. "In general, I think, employers are continuing to pursue lots of different interventions to help improve the health and productivity of their employees and save on medical costs," she says.
Bill Bowler, CEAP, SPHR, senior V.P., client services at ESI Employee Assistance Group, a mid-sized EAP provider based in Wellsville, N.Y., serving about 1,500 organizations, welcomes the new focus on wellness.
He says: "I'm not sure that health reform is what's driving this, but I do know that now when I talk with prospects, and we talk about wellness, they want to know specifically what we do. Before, it was all kind of fluffy. It was all very nice, it made you feel good, but it was all kind of amorphous. No one really asked, 'What exactly do you do?' Now they do."
"This evolution of wellness as a hot-button issue has been good for us, because the wellness component is something we've always emphasized. Now people are noticing it," Bowler says.
Employee interest is driving the renewed focus on wellness as well, Bowler believes. "We've always had a wellness component, but it was kind of like the 'little brother' - not part of our core EAP services," he says.
That changed around 2009, he recalls, when ESI noticed that the number of web hits they were getting at the wellness center on their participant website "was escalating tremendously," Bowler recalls. This is a sign that "people today are much more health-focused than they used to be," he believes.
Like many EAPs, ESI responded by beefing up the health-related component of its participant portal, which now features about 3,000 medical videos.
Ceridian launched a revamped participant portal, LifeWorks.com, on Jan. 1. The new portal "affords us a lot more flexibility, and allows us to provide a lot more customization for the employer over time," reports Allen. "We really see it as the enabling technology for a lot of advancements that we're pursuing right now - online components like social media, online counseling and so forth."
ComPsych's Dodds highlights the key role EAPs play as an integrator, especially when it comes to helping employers adopt behavioral incentives.
For example, she notes, "If an employer wants to incentivize employees with a tiered incentive approach, we can accept a variety of different sources of information into our incentive tracking portal. Let's say an employer has a health risk assessment through another vendor - we can accept the feed from that vendor into our portal."
Dodds also emphasized EAPs' continuity as an important factor. "Employers want a program that will touch all of their employees. But often they are changing medical plans, and employees are changing from one plan to another. So the EAP is a constant - unlike the medical plan."
Since behavioral change is something that happens over a long period of time, not just a few months, "You need that continuity so you have that same approach year after year in order to really impact the behaviors that drive medical costs, productivity and absenteeism, says Dodds. It's "definitely a concern of employers from a financial standpoint."
This is where the broker comes in, believes Ceridian's Allen. "I think this merging of EAPs and wellness programs represents a really great opportunity for brokers," she says. "They're trying to redefine their role and really play up their consultancy [services]. If they think about an EAP really as playing an important role in wellness, it gives them something that can really enhance the package they offer clients - and really help them manage through this time."
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