The Affordable Care Act has provided an impetus for change in the employee benefits arena. From public and private exchanges to the heightened awareness of employees responsibilities in their own health and roles in their benefits decisions, change is on the rise for our industry.
One area that is experiencing significant change is disability. This is due in large part to improvements in health care, more ways to accommodate people with disabilities and changes in the workplace itself especially the growing acceptance of telework.
Poor health and its impact on productivity costs the U.S. economy $576 billion per year, according to the Integrated Benefits Institute. Employers who focus on high employee productivity expectations and the overall bottom line are embracing changes in the disability arena. In a knowledge-based economy, retaining employees who know their business is essential to productivity, profitability and growth.
How the industry is responding
Now there are alternative solutions to the traditional disability coverage mindset. Newer plans incorporate wellness and rehabilitation into the disability process, and encourage employees to take a more active role in their well-being, recovery and return to work. While these approaches are still fairly new and do not have the benefit of years of findings, we believe they will result in better outcomes for the employer and the employee.
These new plans:
- Emphasize what employees can do
- Engage employees in the stay-at-work and return-to-work process.
- Encourage ongoing communication between employers and their employees who are out of work.
The goal of these new plans is to help employees with all types of disabilities feel that they can be productive, and retain their sense of identity and main source of income. And if an employee is totally unable to work, the claims process is designed to be swift and simple so employees have financial protection to help take care of themselves and their family.
Also see: "Dealing with a patchwork of FMLA laws."
Its important to support employees and employers through every part of the journey to productivity. That support could include stay-at-work and return-to-work programs, vocational rehabilitation, behavioral health assistance or worksite modifications.
Insurers like Aetna are taking a progressive approach to return to work by creating product options that give employees incentives. Employees who are motivated and involved earn a higher benefit payment. As a result of being more engaged in an individually tailored return-to-work action plan, employers may see employees being back at work and productive more quickly.
Alternatively,with a stay-at-work action plan, employees who have a condition but are still able to maintain some level of productivity with help can work proactively with employers to remain productive in whatever ways they can without compromising their current health.
For example, an employee has a back issue. Support begins when the employee contacts the employer about the issue. The insurer works directly with the employer to provide support to help the employee stay at work, and minimize negative impacts of illness or injury on employee productivity. Support could include recommended changes in workplace duties, suggested flexible scheduling or help with adaptive equipment.
Having the opportunity to work closely with employees who go out on disability helps orient them to the possibility and probability that they have some capacity to do productive work. According to a University of Washington report, setting expectations early has been shown to reduce long-term work absence by 23%. A defined action plan, based on input from the employee, employer, health care provider and insurer, can help keep employees engaged.
While this approach is unconventional, many employers will appreciate having the financial interests of the employee aligned with the productivity needs of the employer all supported by the activities of the insurer.
Incze is vice president, life and absence management strategy and product development at Aetna.
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