Need a New Year’s resolution? Make 'value' a new favorite benefits word

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This time each year, congratulations are in order to those who have successfully completed another cycle of open enrollment. Now that your employee population has selected its benefit plans, you can turn your attention to the year to come. As you ponder your New Year’s resolutions, here’s one for your list: Sharpen how you communicate about value in healthcare to your employees.

The concept of value, where cost and quality intersect, has become more important with the rise of innovative benefit designs, including high-deductible health plans, reference pricing or narrow networks. These models rely on consumers understanding that not all providers are the same. Studies show that we have come a long way in shedding our innate perception that higher price equals higher quality in healthcare, but there’s more work to do to translate this into action.

Here are some items for your to-do list as you begin communicating with your employees in 2018.

Conduct a value inventory. Forecasting savings from a given strategy requires making many assumptions. For benefit managers, this may mean projecting that a certain percentage of your population will choose a new plan offering or that employees appreciate the financial implications of their everyday choices, such as visiting an out-of-network provider. But this isn’t always the case. Employees often don’t fully understand how the decisions they make after enrolling in benefits, such as which provider they visit, affect the cost or the quality of the care they receive.

Several employers I work with report how difficult it can be to change how employees think about healthcare. For example:

· For employers rolling out limited networks, employees may not understand that their doctor is no longer in-network and what impact that has on their out-of-pocket costs.
· Employees may forego visiting a Center of Excellence for surgery because it requires travel, without ever comparing quality trade-offs or the out-of-pocket cost differentials.
· Reference pricing programs may simply shift costs to employees if they don’t understand that choosing a provider that meets or beats the reference price helps them to maximize their benefit.

Start by taking a careful inventory of where your employees need to make value decisions and then prioritize your education and communications efforts.

Do the heavy lifting on your employees’ behalf.

To avoid cognitive overload, people tend to take shortcuts when making decisions. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to engage employees in becoming healthcare “shoppers.” Employees who previously selected a doctor based on proximity or family referral will have a hard time adapting to incorporating new factors into their provider selections, let alone cost and quality. As you set out to encourage employees to think about value, consider these recommendations from Judith Hibbard, from Consumers Union, on how to streamline decision-making on their behalf:

· Remove overly technical terms that make it difficult for a consumer to understand the benefit.
· Communicate how an employee stands to gain or lose by making one choice over another.
· De-emphasize information that is not essential to decision-making.
· Pair price and quality information together visually and go out of your way to highlight choices with the best combination of these two factors for them.

Recruit “value champions” to help you spread the word.

Some of the most important communication about healthcare benefits occurs through word of mouth among employees. In 2018, consider using some your own employees as “value champions” and engage them proactively in the communications process. Whether leadership, HR staff or other employees, train representatives at each office location to serve as a champion. Make sure they fully understand the nuances of the benefit design you are rolling out, so they can explain it to others. Spotlight testimonials of employees who have had good experiences widely in your e-mail or print campaigns and be sure to quickly address any negative feedback or confusion.

Reap the value.

You’ve gone to a lot of effort to design and implement a sound healthcare strategy for your company. Don’t let it fall flat due to lack of communication. Frequent messaging that lets your employees know you understand their challenges and can support them in making sound decisions, based on value, can go a long way.

If you do all these important tasks, you can sit back while your employees and plan participants make smarter healthcare decisions centered on value in 2018.

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Employee communications Benefit communication Health insurance enrollment Healthcare plans Healthcare industry