Factoring in wellness programs during open enrollment

wellness-programs-webThis article was published on November 5, 2018 on Employee Benefit News, written by Ann Marie O’Brien.

This fall, millions of employees are deciding which health plan to select for 2019. They are reviewing and comparing a variety of factors when making this important decision, such as costs, benefits and care provider networks.

Another component that crops up to the surprise of many workers? Wellness programs.

Employers know that a healthy employee can make for a more productive, satisfied employee. And many workers want to improve their health and are often surprised to learn that employers offer wellness programs. That mutual interest is behind the rise of workplace wellness programs.

Wellness programs usually are made available to employees by their companies directly or through health benefit plans. In either case, employees can factor in the value of wellness offerings, such as weight-loss programs, tobacco-cessation programs or health screenings when determining a health plan that best meets their needs.

A recent UnitedHealthcare report, “Employee Wellness Programs Bring Results,” suggests that companies that strengthen their wellness offerings can yield cost-savings and improve employee health over the long-term.

Many companies, like those highlighted in the report, have successfully established a culture of well-being through their wellness programs.

While each company’s wellness program may be strongest when tailored to its employees’ needs, successful programs often include offering meaningful financial incentives, or a mental health focus through offerings like mindfulness classes and relaxation rooms, or a financial well-being component, like estate-planning seminars. And, many employers find offering the services of a wellness coordinator or nurse liaison onsite encourages a culture of health.

The report compared companies with award-winning wellness programs alongside a peer group of similar companies. It found those that make positive changes to their health offerings over the years may reap the rewards of healthier employees and reduced healthcare costs down the road.

For example, these companies experienced 14.2% per-member, per-month lower costs, even with a 7.5% greater claim risk score (based on their employees’ health status), than the peer group, and the employees at the high-performing companies experienced 24% fewer emergency room visits. Also, the report finds that it can take time for employer wellness programs to yield significant benefits.

Strengthening wellness programs strengthens employees.

The report revealed that the companies with the most effective programs had several common characteristics that contribute to their plan’s positive results and encourage a culture of health, including enthusiastic involvement by senior leaders, positive encouragement from internal advocates, offering employee incentives and putting in place measurable success barometers.

Also, these companies conduct health surveys and challenges, biometric screenings and financial well-being programs, and they all survey their employees to gather feedback to refine their programs.

The informational benefits meetings that are often part of open enrollment offer companies a good opportunity to collect and analyze employee feedback to further strengthen their wellness offerings. It is also an ideal time for employers who have not yet done so to consider offering a wellness program that supports their employees’ health and may improve their well-being while reducing costs for employees and the company.

The Changing Definition of Wellness


After decades of preaching to workers about the importance of staying fit and physically healthy, the term worksite wellness is beginning to mean much more to employers and employees alike. Leading companies are expanding their workplace wellness initiatives to address mental health and financial security – key components of their employee’s overall well-being that go way beyond physical health.

The National Business Group on Health shows that a majority of employers are addressing emotional and mental health as well as financial security as part of their overall well-being strategy. Other initiatives, such as support for community involvement and social interaction, are pointing to a growing trend of focusing on the entire person and not just physical health or fitness. Research is showing that addressing physical health is only one way to improve the workplace experience and reduce employee turnover.

More Choice Means Greater Satisfaction

While traditional wellness programs have been more “one size fits all” and lacking in personal appeal, some employers are encouraging employees to do the things they like to do by giving employees a flat dollar amount to spend on a gym or pool membership, personal trainer or other self-defined activity they find rewarding. Volunteering to help with community causes or enrolling in educational classes are not out of the realm of possibilities, since these activities can do a lot to help an employee gain a healthier perspective on work and life.

When choices are made by individuals and not for them, better decisions often result. As people share their experiences with others, the impact on a company’s culture can be extremely positive. Better well-being becomes an important priority for everyone and not just those who like spending time on treadmills or yoga mats. From the employer’s perspective, objectives can expand beyond healthcare cost savings and increased productivity. As an example, offering health coaching is a great way to focus on the needs of individuals rather than the group as a whole. It can help companies address emotional and mental needs as well as physical needs.

If worksite wellness is a priority for your organization, this might be a good time to review the goals of your program and then to make sure the activities you are offering are in line with those objectives. There is a lot more to be gained from worksite wellness than lower medical claim costs and redefining wellness may be just what your organization needs.

2017 Employer Health Benefits Survey

This article appeared on Kaiser Family Foundation on September 19, 2017.

Employer-sponsored insurance covers over half of the nonelderly population; approximately 151 million non-elderly people in total.1 To provide current information about employer-sponsored health benefits, the Kaiser Family Foundation (Kaiser) and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) conduct an annual survey of private and nonfederal public employers with three or more workers. This is the nineteenth Kaiser/HRET survey and reflects employer-sponsored health benefits in 2017.


In 2017, the average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are $6,690 for single coverage and $18,764 for family coverage [Figure A]. The average single premium increased 4% and the average family premium increased 3% in 2017. Workers’ wages increased 2.3% and inflation increased 2.2% over the last year.2 The average premium for family coverage is lower for covered workers in small firms (3-199 workers) than for workers in large firms (200 or more workers) ($17,615 vs. $19,235).

Premiums for family coverage have increased 19% since 2012 and 55% since 2007. Average premiums for high-deductible health plans with a savings option (HDHP/SOs) are considerably lower than the overall average for all plan types for both single and family coverage, at $6,024 and $17,581, respectively [Figure A]. These premiums do not include any firm contributions to workers’ health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements.

Premiums vary significantly around the averages for both single and family coverage, reflecting differences in health care costs and compensation decisions across regions and industries. Seventeen percent of covered workers are in plans with an annual total premium for family coverage of at least $22,517 (120% or more of the average family premium), and 21% of covered workers are in plans where the family premium is less than $15,011 (less than 80% of the average family premium).

Most covered workers make a contribution toward the cost of the premium for their coverage. On average, covered workers contribute 18% of the premium for single coverage and 31% of the premium for family coverage. Workers in small firms contribute a higher average percentage of the premium for family coverage than workers in large firms (39% vs. 28%).

Covered workers in firms with a relatively high percentage of lower-wage workers (at least 35% of workers earn $24,000 a year or less) contribute higher percentages of the premium for single (23%) and family (37%) coverage than workers in firms with a smaller share of lower-wage workers (18% and 31%, respectively).3

As with total premiums, the share of the premium contributed by workers varies considerably. For single coverage, 14% of covered workers are in plans that do not require them to make a contribution, 60% are in plans that require a contribution of 25% or less of the total premium, and 2% are in plans that require a contribution of more than half of the premium. For family coverage, 3% of covered workers are in plans that do not require them to make a contribution, 44% are in a plan that requires a contribution of 25% or less of the total premium, and 16% are in plans that require more than half of the premium. Covered workers in small firms are more likely than covered workers in large firms to be in a plan that requires the worker to contribute more than 50% of the total family premium (36% vs. 8%).

Continue reading