Rising insurance costs fuelling boom in worker health checks

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The soaring cost of health insurance is prompting more and more U.S bosses to carry out checks on their employers to gauge how healthy they are and whether they may be at risk of getting ill in the future.

Research from consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide has concluded that the number of U.S employers carrying out "health risk assessments" (HRAs) on workers will rise by more than a fifth next year.

Already two thirds of U.S employers offer HRAs, with many linking participation to incentives, such as reduced healthcare plan contributions or free gifts.

The health and wellbeing of workers is becoming an ever more pressing issue for American bosses, particularly against the background of rising healthcare costs, increasing levels of obesity, an ageing workforce and a crisis in pension and retirement provision.

"Employers are trying to address the root causes driving the costs of health benefits, and employee health is a big part of that," said Watson Wyatt senior consultant Bruce Kelley.

"To get good participating levels employees offer incentives that initially are something like a gift certificate to every employee who completes the health risk assessment [questionnaire]," he explained.

"As time goes on they need to offer a more substantial incentive, and often it is in the form of creating a difference in what employees contribute to their health plan. If they complete the assessment, their contribution into their health plan is reduced," he added.

This time of year is generally the most popular period in which employees are offered "open enrolment", added Watson Wyatt.

This is where workers are invited to enrol in or change their health benefits and new features such as HRAs are introduced.

"As employees pick up more responsibility for funding healthcare and other benefits, open enrolment is the perfect time for workers to evaluate their benefits and ensure that they select the coverage that is right for them and their families," pointed out Tom Billet, Watson Wyatt senior consultant.

While the main reason for carrying out an HRA is undoubtedly cost, other longer term benefits will often show through, argued Kelley.

"Employers who offer health risk assessments and then follow up with prevention programmes can save two to three times what it costs them [to pay for the HRAs]," he said.

"After all, the costs they're avoiding [for serious or chronic health problems that progress unchecked] are pretty big," he added.

How the HRA is delivered will vary, with some comprising simply a web-based questionnaire and other being paper-based.

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