Americans look to employers for lead on health insurance

Sep 22 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Most American workers are singularly bad at managing their own healthcare insurance and are increasingly looking to their employers to provide help and guidance on the right decisions they need to be making.

The study by HR company Hewitt Associates has found that, while employers are increasingly concerned about rising health care costs and the complexity of health plans, employees are more concerned about being hand-held through the healthcare insurance maze.

The study of 18,000 U.S. employees found that almost 80 per cent worried that their health care coverage would ultimately become unaffordable.

More than half believed that choosing and using the health care plan that best met their needs got more complex every year.

Yet just 34 per cent tracked their current health care expenses and fewer than half took the time to estimate future health care expenses.

Furthermore, while the majority of employees believed their companies provided sufficient tools and information to choose and use their health plans, just half said they used those tools.

"Employees are increasingly being tasked with making tougher and more important choices about their health care, but most are struggling to make the best choices at enrolment and throughout the year," said Jennifer Murphy, health care communication leader at Hewitt Associates.

"While companies are providing additional education and resources to employees to help them make better choices, too much health care communication is still focused on enrolment, with little promotion or education throughout the year when people are really using their plans.

"As health plans become more complex, it's critical that employers have a year-round strategy that includes ways to promote the tools and educate employees and their families. Bottom line, companies need to be the ones who support and influence consumers' health care behaviours," she added.

The increasing level of complexity involved in choosing and using health care plans, such as high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) or health savings accounts (HSAs), continued to be an issue for employees.

Employees' overall understanding of and satisfaction with these plans was low among those who were participating in them.

Just 30 per cent of employees said they understood and were satisfied with their selection and more than half said they would not re-enroll next year.

"As health care costs continue to rise, HSAs are great vehicles for helping employees save for future health care expenses, but they can be ineffective or confusing to employees if they aren't using them in the right way," said Murphy.

The study also found that the percentage of employees who practised healthy behaviours, such as regular exercise, balanced diet, regularly scheduled physicals and preventive medicines, had remained constant over the past three years, despite concerns over rising levels of obesity.

The frequency of behaviours related to doctor's visits, including researching illness symptoms, asking doctors questions and discussing treatment options, had also stayed relatively constant.

"To see sustained improvement in healthy behaviours, companies need to provide incentives that reward the desired behaviours through their plan designs, and then reinforce the right messages in communication throughout the year Ė not just at enrolment," said Murphy.