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Get an Early Start on Open Enrollment

As open enrollment is right around the corner, now is the time to make a plan to maximize employee enrollment and help your staff select the health plans that best suit them.

You’ll also need to make sure that you comply with the Affordable Care Act if it applies to your organization, as well as other laws and regulations.

Here are some pointers to make open enrollment fruitful for both your staff and your organization.

Review what you did last year

Review the results of last year’s enrollment efforts to make sure the process and the perks remain relevant and useful to workers.

Were the various approaches and communication channels you used effective and did you receive any feedback about the process, either good or bad?

Start early with notifications

You should give your employees at least a month’s notice before open enrollment, and provide them with the materials they will need to make an informed decision.

This includes the various health plans that you are offering your staff for next year.

Encourage them to read the information and come to your human resources point person with questions.

Help in sorting through plans

You should be able to help them figure out which plan features fit their needs, and how much the plans will cost them out of their paycheck. Use technology to your advantage, particularly any registration portal that your plan provider offers. Provide a single landing page for all enrollment applications.

Also, hold meetings on the plans and put notices in your staff’s paycheck envelopes.

Plan materials

Communicate to your staff any changes to a health plan’s benefits for the next plan year through an updated summary plan description or a summary of material modifications.

Confirm that their open enrollment materials contain certain required participant notices, when applicable – such as the summary of benefits and coverage.

Check grandfathered status

A grandfathered plan is one that was in existence when the ACA was enacted on March 23, 2010, and is thus exempt from some of the law’s requirements.

If you have a grandfathered plan, talk to us to confirm whether it will maintain its grandfathered status for the next plan year. If it is, you must notify your employees of the plan status. If it’s not, you need to confirm with us that your plan comports with the ACA in terms of benefits offered.

ACA affordability standard

Under the ACA’s employer shared responsibility rules, applicable large employers must offer “affordable” plans, based on a percentage of the employee’s household income. For plan years that begin on or after Jan. 1 of next year, the affordability percentage is 9.86% of household income. At least one of your plans must meet this threshold.

Get spouses involved

Benefits enrollment is a family affair, so getting spouses involved is critical. You should encourage your employees to share the health plan information with their spouses, so they can make informed decisions on their health insurance together.

Also, encourage any spouses who have questions to schedule an appointment to get questions answered.


Protect Your Firm from Hacking by Disgruntled Former Employees

While hacking by outsiders is posing a larger and more significant threat to companies of all sizes, the threat of insider jobs – particularly by disgruntled former employees – is often an even bigger one.

These attacks, carried out with malicious intent to hamstring a company’s operations, can cause serious problems. Take, for example, the following recent events:

  • A former employee of Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corp. is facing charges after strange things started happening to the company’s systems after he resigned, due to allegedly being passed over for a promotion.

Shortly after he left, employees at Spellman began reporting that they were unable to process routine transactions and were receiving error messages. An applicant for his old position received an e-mail from an anonymous address, warning him, “Don’t accept any position.” And the company’s business calendar was changed by a month, throwing production and finance operations into disorder.

The mayhem cost his former employer more than $90,000, and he was arrested. “The defendant engaged in a 21st-century campaign of cyber-vandalism and high-tech revenge,” said Loretta Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District.

  • A former employee of McLane Advanced Technologies was sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay $35,816 in restitution after pleading guilty to hacking into McLane’s systems and deleting payroll files to the point that staff could not clock in and the company could not issue payroll checks.

He was upset after the company had fired him and then refused to help him obtain unemployment benefits.

  • A network engineer, who was fired by the American branch of Gucci, stands accused of breaking into the computer systems of the Italian luxury goods organization, shutting down servers and deleting data.

The New York County District Attorney’s office accuses the former employee of using an account that he had secretly created while employed by Gucci to access the network after his employment was terminated.

He has been charged with computer tampering, identity theft, falsifying business records, computer trespass, criminal possession of computer-related material, unlawful duplication of computer-related material, and unauthorized use of a computer. The intrusion is said to have cost the company some $200,000.

What you can do

With these cases in mind, there are internal steps you can take to avoid this sort of thing happening at your company.

Route all offsite access through a VPN – This can typically prevent someone from entering your system altogether. But, once you have such a system in place, all outside connections need to be logged and monitored for suspicious activity.

Test your disaster recovery plan – You need to have a disaster recovery plan in place that includes backing up data every day, just in case someone deletes it from your servers. That way, if data is deleted you can immediately switch to a back-up IT environment.

A lot of times, organizations do disaster recovery, but unless they practice the actual recovery, they don’t know if it will work, and it doesn’t matter whether they have a physical or a virtual environment. So, don’t forget to test any plans you have.

Block unapproved software – Sometimes your employee hackers will install extra software that makes it easier for them to root through your system and create havoc. You should have systems in place that do not allow anybody to install unapproved software.

Disable ex-employee accounts and passwords – Whenever an employee or contractor ceases to work at your business – or in the case of layoffs, beforehand – you must disable their network access, accounts and passwords. You should regularly review which users have access to your systems, and know that changing passwords and resetting access rights is essential when a member of your staff leaves your employment.

Think like a malicious insider – IT managers must think like an inside attacker, and identify the weak points of their infrastructure that they themselves would exploit were they so inclined. As a senior manager, you should ask your IT managers just what they are doing to thwart any possible insider attacks.

Make suspect behavior cause for concern – Watch for human-behavior warning signs, such as complaining to others about the company and a more than usual amount of time spent accessing company data on your network. Develop a response plan for when such signs get spotted.

Beware resignations, terminations – Most insider attacks occur within a narrow window. Most people who steal intellectual property or destroy systems do so within 30 days of resignation. Accordingly, keep a close eye on departing or departed employees, and what they viewed.

If someone resigns who has had access to your most sensitive company information, including trade secrets, you need to pay special attention to ensure it’s not compromised.

Marshal forces – Businesses that prepare for attacks in advance tend to better manage the aftermath. When it comes to combating cases of suspected insider threat, include human resources, management, upper management, security, legal and software engineering.


IRS Eases Access to Chronic Disease Treatment

New guidance from the IRS will help people enrolled in high-deductible health plans get coverage for pharmaceuticals to treat a number of chronic conditions.

Under the guidance, medicinal coverage for patients with HDHPs that have certain chronic conditions – like asthma, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and more – will be classified as preventative health services, which must be covered free with no cost-sharing under the Affordable Care Act.

The background

The guidance, which takes effect immediately, is the result of a June 24 executive order issued by President Trump directing the IRS to find ways to expand the use of health savings accounts and their attached HDHPs to pay for medical care that helps maintain health status for individuals with chronic conditions.

The executive order was in response to a number of reports that have shown that people with HDHPs will often skip getting the medications they need or take less than they should because they cannot afford to foot the full cost of the medication even before they meet their deductible.

This can lead to worse issues like heart attacks and strokes, which then require more and even costlier care, according to the guidance.

The latest move is a significant step that should greatly reduce the cost burden on individuals with chronic conditions, as many of the medications they need to treat their diseases can be extremely expensive.

The IRS, the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have listed 13 services that can now be covered without a deductible, and have promised to review add or subtract services from the list on a periodic basis, according to the guidance.

Here is the full list of the treatments, and the conditions they are for:

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors – Congestive heart failure, diabetes, and/or coronary artery disease.

Anti-resorptive therapy – Osteoporosis and/or osteopenia.

Beta-blockers – Congestive heart failure and/or coronary artery disease.

Blood pressure monitor – Hypertension.

Inhaled corticosteroids – Asthma.

Insulin- and other glucose-lowering agents – Diabetes.

Retinopathy screening – Diabetes.

Peak-flow meter – Asthma.

Glucometer – Diabetes.

Hemoglobin A1c testing – Diabetes.

International Normalized Ratio testing – Liver disease and/or bleeding disorders.

Low-density lipoprotein testing – Heart disease.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – Depression.

Statins – Heart disease and/or diabetes.

The items above were chosen because they are low-cost, proven methods for preventing chronic conditions from worsening or preventing the patient from developing secondary conditions that require further and more expensive treatment.


Off-the-clock Work Ban Can Save You from Legal Troubles

Wage and hour lawsuits are on the rise, usually with non-exempt employees claiming they weren’t paid either for overtime or for work they may have performed before or after their shift.

But, if you have ironclad policies in place, you can greatly minimize both the chances of being sued and also losing the case.

One California case illustrates how one employer, thanks to its policies on prohibiting work off the clock, was able to avoid a trial and payment of damages after an appeals court threw out a potential class-action suit by employees claiming they hadn’t been paid for overtime work for which their employer lacked knowledge.

The California Appellate Court dismissed the case, Jong vs. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, finding that Kaiser could not be held liable for overtime pay because:

  • The company explicitly prohibited off-the-clock work;
  • The employee worked off-the-clock contrary to this policy; and
  • The employer had no actual or constructive notice of the employee’s unapproved off-the-clock work and, thus, could not be liable.

This case illustrates the importance of putting your off-the-clock policy in writing and following through with consistent enforcement.

The case

In 2009, Kaiser reclassified its outpatient pharmacy manager (OPMs) as non-exempt as part of a settlement of an earlier lawsuit in which it had been accused of improperly classifying OPMs as exempt.

After Kaiser had reclassified its OPMs, three OPMs filed suit, alleging that Kaiser refused to pay overtime and that it had not adjusted the responsibilities of OPMs so that they could perform their jobs in 40 hours a week.

OPMs were also required to hit budget targets and Kaiser had disciplined one of the OPMs for going over budget, partly due to overtime that he reported and was paid for. In the lawsuit, the OPM asserted that Kaiser knew or should have known about the off-the-clock hours that he worked and therefore should have paid the unreported overtime.

In dismissing the lawsuit, the court cited the plaintiff’s deposition that he was aware of Kaiser’s overtime rules, including that it would pay for overtime work even if it had not been pre-approved. The OPM had also signed an affirmation acknowledging that off-the-clock work was prohibited.

During his deposition, the OPM also said that he wasn’t sure if any of his managers knew he was working off the clock. He also had not recorded his off-the-clock work and didn’t know how many hours he’d worked off the clock.

The takeaway

This case illustrates the importance of having strong and well-documented policies, including procedures for requesting approval for overtime as well as a prohibition on off-the-clock work.

Kaiser was granted case dismissal thanks to its explicit policies on off-the-clock work and that it had required its employees to sign an acknowledgment that they would not work off the clock.

You may want to consider instituting policies and procedures that are similar to Kaiser’s if you want to avoid any off-the-clock work complaints. Its policies were:

  • All non-exempt employees will be paid overtime for all overtime hours recorded.
  • All non-exempt employees should be clocked in whenever they are working.
  • All non-exempt employees must request approval to work overtime.
  • All non-exempt employees are required to sign an attestation form acknowledging that they will not work off the clock.

You should review your wage and hour policies with an employment attorney and implement policies and procedures that can keep your firm from being sued by employees for overtime, meal break, and off-the-clock violations.

Your last line of defense should be an employment practices liability policy. For more information on such coverage, call us.


Make Sure Your Safety Equipment Fits Women on Your Team

Perhaps you remember the embarrassing scenario for NASA in early 2019, when the space agency was forced to cancel its first-ever all-woman spacewalk because they didn’t have two suits on the International Space Station that fit them. While most people were shocked, women in professions that require them to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) know the challenges they face in getting equipment that fits properly. The problem has really come to the fore as more and more women enter professions that have traditionally been jobs that men gravitate towards. For example, nearly 10% of construction jobs in the U.S. are now held by women. It’s not uncommon for women in those types of work to have to use equipment that is made for men, forcing them to don overalls, gloves, vests, footwear and more that are too large,If you have jobs that require specialized protective equipment, now is the time to also make sure that you have items in smaller sizes if you have women on your team. It may not always be easy to find everything in smaller sizes. It’s usually not too difficult to find protective shoes in women’s sizes, but coveralls and tools for smaller hands are rare. Getting the right fit for your workers is imperative because loose-fitting items can lead to accidents that cause injuries or worse, especially if loose coveralls get caught in machinery. Items that you should consider having in smaller sizes include:

  • Safety glasses
  • Hard hats
  • Protective shoes
  • Coveralls
  • Safety harnesses
  • Safety gloves
  • Ear plugs

You should also not ask your female workers to take shortcuts, like rolling up sleeves or pantlegs that are too long. If they are rolled up, they’re not providing protection to parts of the arms and legs, experts say. And it’s not just women who are small. Clearly, many men are also smaller than average, and they often have the same issues with ill-fitting protective equipment as women do. The problem is that most employers that buy protective equipment for workers order it in bulk, and they will usually opt for large or extra-large sizes.

Apply standards uniformly

If you have women in your workforce, you should apply the same standards to their PPE as you do for men. To make sure that you have equipment that fits all of your workers:

  • First, talk to your employees and ask them to give honest assessments of how the PPE they have been issued fits.
  • Don’t ask women to wear equipment that is too large. It can create a safety hazard and may not protect them properly.
  • Don’t alter equipment yourself. Safety equipment is manufactured to provide safety if it fits properly. Altering the equipment can make it unsafe and noncompliant with safety standards.
  • Don’t criticize, ignore or retaliate against employees who report ill-fitting PPE.
  • When selecting safety equipment, consult with your employees to make sure you order items that will fit them.
  • Provide the same range of sizes for women as for men and ensure that suppliers have properly assessed the appropriateness of their equipment to women and men.
  • Require your workers to try on different sizes of equipment before choosing the ones that fit best.

Workers’ Comp Audit Mistakes: What to Look For

No company owner wants to undergo a workers’ compensation audit, but they are a fact of life if you run a business and have employees.

Unfortunately, many audits don’t go smoothly and sometimes your insurer may make mistakes. Missouri-based Workers’ Compensation Consultants, which helps employers through the workers’ comp audit process, recently listed the 10 most common audit mistakes that insurance companies make.

The list highlights a common problem and how you can detect the mistakes to avoid being stuck with a massive audit bill. Insurance companies allow you to review the audit with your broker. If you notice that you have received an audit bill that is obviously overstated, you should contact us.

Here are the things to look for when reviewing an audit by your insurance company:

Wrong class code – Misapplication of job classifications occurs in many workers’ comp audits. With hundreds of job classes to choose from, mistakes can happen. Talk to us and review your old policies to see if any of your class codes have changed.

X-Mod is changed – After your insurer finishes the audit, it will use the information to calculate your premium. When that happens, it has to include your X-Mod to get the right rate. But sometimes the insurer may use an incorrect X-Mod. Check carefully.

Subcontractors are counted – Sometimes insurers will include subcontractors as employees, which results in a new audit bill to account for the additional “employees.” But if they are genuine subcontractors, they should not be counted. Often, uninsured contractors will be included as employees. Make sure to use insured contractors only.

Disappearing credits – Most policies will have some sort of premium credits or other modifiers. Sometimes during audits, the insurer will remove them when recalculating the premium they think you owe. Watch out for missing credits and other modifiers if you get an audit bill, like:

  • Premium discount
  • Schedule credits
  • Deductible credits
  • State-specific credits

Audit worksheets missing – If the auditor fails to provide you with audit worksheets, which are used do compile your payroll and other audit information, you should ask to check their work. They will provide you with the information you need to carry out such a check.

Your rates changed – The rates you are charged at the beginning of your policy period must remain the same for the entire policy period. If your base rates have changed, the insurer may have made a mistake.

Separation of payroll – Depending on your industry, you may or may not be able to split your employees’ payroll between job classifications (like cabinet installers and sheetrock hangers). This is a pinch point when errors can occur. If the auditor says you are not allowed to split job classifications even though you have in the past, your audit may be in error.

Unexpected large premium due – If you get a significant bill for your insurance company after your audit, the auditor may have made mistakes, particularly if you know that your employment has remained relatively stable and you’ve had no significant claims, if any. If it seems out of whack, call us.

Payroll data doesn’t match – If there is a discrepancy between your payroll data and what you see on the audit, a mistake may have been made. Try to match the payroll on the audit with that generated from your accountant. If the insurer made a mistake, you could end up paying for phantom payroll numbers.

No physical audit – There are three types of audits:

  • Mail audit
  • Phone audit, and
  • Physical audit

The mail and phone audits are prone to errors since neither you nor your staff likely have any experience in premium auditing. If you have a big bill after a mail or phone audit, mistakes could have been made.


Protect Your Firm from Hacking by Disgruntled Former Employees

While hacking by outsiders is posing a larger and more significant threat to companies of all sizes, the threat of insider jobs – particularly by disgruntled former employees – is often an even bigger one.

These attacks, carried out with malicious intent to hamstring a company’s operations, can cause serious problems. Take, for example, the following recent events:

  • A former employee of Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corp. is facing charges after strange things started happening to the company’s systems after he resigned, due to allegedly being passed over for a promotion.

Shortly after he left, employees at Spellman began reporting that they were unable to process routine transactions and were receiving error messages. An applicant for his old position received an e-mail from an anonymous address, warning him, “Don’t accept any position.” And the company’s business calendar was changed by a month, throwing production and finance operations into disorder.

The mayhem cost his former employer more than $90,000, and he was arrested. “The defendant engaged in a 21st-century campaign of cyber-vandalism and high-tech revenge,” said Loretta Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District.

  • A former employee of McLane Advanced Technologies was sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay $35,816 in restitution after pleading guilty to hacking into McLane’s systems and deleting payroll files to the point that staff could not clock in and the company could not issue payroll checks.

He was upset after the company had fired him and then refused to help him obtain unemployment benefits.

  • A network engineer, who was fired by the American branch of Gucci, stands accused of breaking into the computer systems of the Italian luxury goods organization, shutting down servers and deleting data.

The New York County District Attorney’s office accuses the former employee of using an account that he had secretly created while employed by Gucci to access the network after his employment was terminated.

He has been charged with computer tampering, identity theft, falsifying business records, computer trespass, criminal possession of computer-related material, unlawful duplication of computer-related material, and unauthorized use of a computer. The intrusion is said to have cost the company some $200,000.

What you can do

With these cases in mind, there are internal steps you can take to avoid this sort of thing happening at your company.

Route all offsite access through a VPN – This can typically prevent someone from entering your system altogether. But, once you have such a system in place, all outside connections need to be logged and monitored for suspicious activity.

Test your disaster recovery plan – You need to have a disaster recovery plan in place that includes backing up data every day, just in case someone deletes it from your servers. That way, if data is deleted you can immediately switch to a back-up IT environment.

A lot of times, organizations do disaster recovery, but unless they practice the actual recovery, they don’t know if it will work, and it doesn’t matter whether they have a physical or a virtual environment. So, don’t forget to test any plans you have.

Block unapproved software – Sometimes your employee hackers will install extra software that makes it easier for them to root through your system and create havoc. You should have systems in place that do not allow anybody to install unapproved software.

Disable ex-employee accounts and passwords – Whenever an employee or contractor ceases to work at your business – or in the case of layoffs, beforehand – you must disable their network access, accounts and passwords. You should regularly review which users have access to your systems, and know that changing passwords and resetting access rights is essential when a member of your staff leaves your employment.

Think like a malicious insider – IT managers must think like an inside attacker, and identify the weak points of their infrastructure that they themselves would exploit were they so inclined. As a senior manager, you should ask your IT managers just what they are doing to thwart any possible insider attacks.

Make suspect behavior cause for concern – Watch for human-behavior warning signs, such as complaining to others about the company and a more than usual amount of time spent accessing company data on your network. Develop a response plan for when such signs get spotted.

Beware resignations, terminations – Most insider attacks occur within a narrow window. Most people who steal intellectual property or destroy systems do so within 30 days of resignation. Accordingly, keep a close eye on departing or departed employees, and what they viewed.

If someone resigns who has had access to your most sensitive company information, including trade secrets, you need to pay special attention to ensure it’s not compromised.

Marshal forces – Businesses that prepare for attacks in advance tend to better manage the aftermath. When it comes to combating cases of suspected insider threat, include human resources, management, upper management, security, legal and software engineering.


Health system consolidation: Can employer groups, brokers survive it?

By Dan Cook

Evidence suggests that consolidation among health systems leads to higher prices for services and stable or lower quality of care.

Health care systems have been buying up one another, and physician practices, at an alarming rate. The 115 announced health care system deals in 2017 was a record, with 2018’s 90 close behind.

This level of consolidation activity 2017 “shook the health care landscape,” said consulting firm Kaufman Hall, which produces an annual mergers and acquisitions review. “These tremors continued into 2018 and are beginning to fundamentally reshape the health care landscape,” KH said in its 2018 review.

The consolidation within the physician practice sector was no less titanic. Hospital systems acquired more than 5,000 standalone practices in 2015 and 2016 alone. Meantime, practices are also being swallowed up by UnitedHealthcare and other non-hospital enterprises.

Analysts tend to focus on two major outcomes of this consolidation craze: financial and quality of care. So far, evidence suggests that consolidation among health care systems leads to higher prices for services and thus costs to users, and stable or lower quality of care.

These trends are not the friends of two very specific groups: health insurance brokers, and employer groups created to negotiate better terms for their members with hospitals.

“It is frustrating,” admits Brian Marcotte, CEO, The National Business Group on Health. “Scale for the sake of scale leads to higher costs, and that’s what we are seeing. When we look at what actually happens when hospitals buy hospitals or physician groups, we see higher cost and price.”

One of the primary objectives of NBGH’s 435 enterprise level members–all of which are self insured–has been to negotiate better terms with medical providers. As consolidation creates ever larger health care systems, its members report that “consolidation has not led to the efficiencies you’d see in other industries. … Most report that costs went up or were unchanged. Very few saw them go down.”

Employer groups are promoting Centers of Excellence and encouraging plan members to seek care from top performing practitioners. But consolidation among hospitals can erode quality of care for employer plan members by bringing into an existing system underperforming hospitals and physicians, Marcotte says.

“Let’s say you have a 12-hospital system that dominates a market or several markets,” he says. “The health plan is looking to contract with eight higher performing hospitals, but not all 12. The hospital system’s negotiating position is, ‘You take the whole system or you don’t get any of our system.’ These are the tactics that go on when providers are dominating a particular market.”

The decline of bargaining power

Smaller employers that band together into health care purchasing groups lose negotiating power when consolidation sweeps through a market. Employer groups negotiate locally or regionally for terms for their members with hospital systems. Their cache is numbers: They guarantee a large number of patients in exchange for favorable terms.

But, says Den Bishop, president, Holmes Murphy, an insurance advisor, as the systems expand, the group’s bargaining power diminishes.

Meantime, consolidation among physician practices is driving costs up for plan members. Physicians are highly incentivized to merge practices and then sell to a health care system. “They want to get out from under the administrative burden and just practice medicine,” Bishop says. “As soon as they buy the practice, the hospital system goes to the insurance company and says, ‘Our contract rate is much higher than the physicians, so you will now pay us this rate.’ That rate gets passed on to the employer. By paying higher prices for physician services, employers are paying the acquisition price for the hospital.”

In Atlanta not long ago, a major health system purchased a large physician practice–and employer plan costs for those physicians increased 40 percent, says Suzannah Gill, benefits strategy consultant with EPIC in Atlanta. “Sadly, when hospitals buys practices, the hospital wins and the member loses,” she says.

The national movement toward greater price and cost transparency among providers faces a threat from consolidation, Marcotte and others say. As systems expand, “you see a reluctance to have a price listed in transparency tools,” Marcotte says. “They refuse to list their prices, effectively eliminating any real ability for a consumer to choose a cost effective site of service.”

Josh Luke, MD, a former hospital CEO who now writes and lectures on hospital system strategies, believes the transparency issue may prove to be a turning point battleground for hospitals.

“There’s a transparency movement uprising coming with overall health and cost,” he says. “That momentum will be tough for any market to turn away from. Pricing transparency may outweigh a monopoly’s ability to gouge employers.”

Broker adaptation

On the broker side, a major threat to traditional brokers comes from the hospitals themselves. As they expand, many are moving into the health insurance business.

“The hospital systems are moving quickly, while they still have the most money, to compete with insurers. They are becoming insurers,” says Luke. “The bottom line is that is the [hospital] model of the future is an insurance model.”

To adapt to this new model, brokers need to become advisors and consultants to their clients. Their role may revolve more around transparency, advising clients on negotiating specific terms with health care systems, guiding them through the opaque pricing lens hospitals have thrown up.

Longer term, the health care system as insurer could have a positive effect on plan design and cost, several experts agree. The insurance component of a hospital system benefits from a healthier patient population, on more efficient use of services and facilities, and on a leaner brick-and-mortar footprint. These systems will focus more on convenience for patients and on value-based cost structures, and will be more responsive to negotiating with large employer groups.

“If the hospital system becomes big enough, it can negotiate directly with employers,” Bishop says. “They don’t need the insurance broker. The great hope [for employers] is that the hospital companies become insurers and have an incentive to provide better quality at a lower cost. It is still a ways off. We are in the cocoon period right now.”

EPIC’s Gill agrees that hospital systems that branch out into insurance will seek to contain the costs of medical care. “Health care providers have an incentive to increase costs. Insurance carriers have incentives to reduce or maintain costs. So when a health system develops an insurance business, there are incentives for them to do things efficiently,” she says.

The broker/advisor can play a crucial role in a consolidating market, Gill and others say.

“Employers need advisors to guide them today. They are focused on running their business, so you are seeing more advisors introducing interesting, cutting edge practices to meet their needs,” she says. “Sometimes when you tell a provider or facility, ‘My client will pay on the spot and you won’t have to worry about collections later,’ [the health care provider] will take it. I see all of the changes as very good for the broker/advisor market. The market is evolving, becoming more complex, and that’s where employers turn to brokers for guidance.”

The overall effects of hospital consolidation in a major market “are probably indifferent to most forward-thinking brokers,” says Allison De Paoili, founder and owner, De Paoli Professional Services, San Antonio. “But in the smaller markets, where you have two health systems that merge, then you have a problem,” she says. “With no competition, there is no incentive to negotiate price.”

In the end, the final chapters on health system consolidation have yet to be written. The merger frenzy of the past two years is still working itself out. As hospital systems seek market domination, creative brokers, concerned large employers, and national organizations like NBGH are still developing their responses.

Pockets of positive physician practice and hospital system consolidation do exist, NBGH’s Marcotte says. The hospital-as-insurer places the parent company in a position to accept some of the risks, he says, and that’s where innovation and efficiencies will emerge. It’s mostly happening on the Medicare Advantage side, but could translate to commercial insurance, he says.

“What I worry about with provider consolidation is when I have the whole market, I have no incentive to move to a value based direction, unless I have to do it to get paid differently,” he says.

Total market domination may be the goal of health systems. But it could also be their undoing.

“When there’s a monopoly, people will walk away,” says Josh Luke. “People are getting fed up. The public pressure is starting to rival the doctor and hospital lobby. Major employers, like Disney and Amazon, are saying ‘We are gonna blow it up and start over.’ Hospitals haven’t started feeling the pain yet. But it’s coming.”


Five Ways Employers Can Save on Health Care Costs

In recent years, many companies have been dealing with rising health care costs largely by transferring more of the expense and risk on to their employees.

But some employers have found smarter, more creative ways to limit health costs without further burdening valued employees. Here are some of the best solutions:

  1. Pharmacy benefit managers. Pharmacy benefit managers are independent third party administrators who work with pharmacists, employers and workers to reduce costs and inefficiencies. For example, they may help workers migrate from expensive brand name drugs to equally effective generics for a fraction of the cost.
    Or they may be able to migrate workers from bricks-and-mortar pharmacies to mail order. They also assist employers with contract negotiations.
  2. Telemedicine. Some companies are contracting with doctors to provide health services online, via a video feed. It’s no substitute for an in-person examination, but workers can get consultations and routine assessments done and get a prescription for a fraction of the cost of an in-person visit. Furthermore, the worker doesn’t have to take time off work for an appointment. It can be done from the office.  A typical insurance billing for a basic medical appointment can run as high as $150. But a telemedicine visit can cost about a third of that amount, according to reporting from U.S. News.
  3. Wellness programs. Healthy employees cost much less than sick ones over time. Smokers and the obese generate much more frequent and higher medical claims than normal-weight employees.
    Employers are fighting back by offering access to smoking cessation and weight loss programs, as well as additional programs for the management of common conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. About 58% of health plans nationwide offer an incentive for participating in a wellness program, according to research from CEB, the best-practice insight and technology company.
  4. Consumer-directed health plans. Employers are also giving employees greater control over their spending decisions. They are doing this via high-deductible health plans, which come with access to health savings accounts. These allow either an employee or an employer to contribute pre-tax dollars to an HSA. Withdrawals from an HSA to pay for qualified health care expenses are tax-free.
    These plans are less expensive for employers than comparable traditional insurance plans, and can work very well for employees in good health. Some employers choose to contribute to HSAs on their workers’ behalf.
  5. Transparency tools. Cost-transparency tools make the cost of every medical procedure or service visible to employers and patients alike.

 

A claims analysis from UnitedHealthCare found that those who used the company’s transparency tools spent an average of 36% less on health services. When consumers used price-transparency tools, CEB researchers found an average saving of $173 for employees and $409 for employers per procedure.


Employers Rethink HDHPs as More People Struggle with Medical Bills

As the number of employers offering high-deductible health plans continues growing, the spotlight recently has highlighted an inconvenient truth: some employees are going broke and filing bankruptcy because they cannot afford all of the out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles they must pay in these plans – just like the bad old days in the 1990s and 2000s.

Besides being in plans with high deductibles, many employees are also paying more for coverage as employers have shifted more and more of the premium burden to their staff.
Making matters worse, studies are showing that many people with HDHPs are forgoing necessary treatment and not taking the recommended dosages of medicines because they can’t afford the extra costs.
Consider:

  • Enrollment in HDHP plans grew to 21.8 million in 2017, up from 20.2 million the year prior, and 5.4 million in 2007, according to a report by America’s Health Insurance Plans.
  • Nearly 40% of large employers offered only high-deductible plans in 2018, up from 7% in 2009, according to a survey by the National Business Group on Health.
  • 50% of all workers had health insurance with a deductible of at least $1,000 for an individual in 2018, up from 22% in 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Despite that, a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15.4% of adults in HDHPs in 2016 had issues paying bills, compared to 9% of those with other types of insurance. And there have been a number of news reports about the deep financial toll on HDHP enrollees that have suddenly been hit by serious maladies.

Meanwhile, the average deductible for a family had risen to an average of $4,500 in 2017 from $3,500 in 2006, according to the Kaiser-HRET 2017 survey of employer-sponsored health plans.
As a result, some employers are rethinking their use of these HDHPs and trying to reduce the burden on their workers, according to news reports.

Skimping on care

Studies show that many put off routine care or skip medication to save money. That can mean illnesses that might have been caught early can go undiagnosed, becoming potentially life-threatening and enormously costly for the medical system.

A study by economists at University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Research, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology

Findings: When one large employer switched all its employees to high-deductible plans, medical spending dropped by about 13%. That was not because the workers were shopping around for less expensive treatments, but rather because they had reduced the amount of medical care they used, including preventative care.

The study found that women in HDHPs were more likely to delay follow-up tests after mammograms, including imaging, biopsies and early-stage diagnoses that could detect tumors when they’re easiest to treat.

A report by the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, published in Translational Behavioral Medicine

Findings: People with HDHPs but no health savings accounts are less likely to see primary care physicians, receive preventive care or seek subspecialty services. Compared to individuals with no deductibles, those enrolled in HDHPs without HSAs were 7% less likely to be screened for breast cancer and 4% less likely to be screened for hypertension, and had 8% lower rates of flu vaccination.
The study authors noted that although more individuals have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, premiums and deductibles have increased, leaving many Americans unable to afford these costs.

Oddly, many people in HDHPs are also forgoing preventative care services, even though they are exempted from out-of-pocket charges, including the deductible under the ACA. This is likely because most people don’t know that the ACA covers preventive care office visits, screening tests, immunizations and counseling with no out-of-pocket charges. As a result, they do not benefit from preventive care services and recommendations.

Companies with second thoughts

A few large employers – including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and CVS Health Corp. – recently announced that they would reduce deductibles in the health plans they offer their employees or cover more care before workers are exposed to costs.

CVS Pharmacy, part of CVS Health Corp., in 2013 had moved all of its 200,000 employees and families into HDHPs. During routine questionnaires, CVS later found that that some of its employees had stopped taking their medications because of costs. The company, in response, expanded the list of generic drugs its employees could buy for free to include some brand name medications, as well as insulins.


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