A roundtable discussion from benefits consulting leaders on what employers need to know and need to be thinking about going forward with their health strategies served as the wrap-up to a National Business Group on Health annual business agenda event last week in Washington, D.C.

With cost-control still very much top of mind for employers, NBGH President and CEO Helen Darling aptly pointed out that, “If they were charging, this would be hundreds and hundreds of dollars an hour. So, this is your chance to get some free consulting from these leaders.”

The group included Julie Stone, health and group consulting leader at Towers Watson; Sharon Cunninghis, U.S. health and benefits regional business leader for Mercer; and Jim Winkler, Aon Hewitt senior vice president and chief innovation officer. Darling served as the panel’s moderator.

As employers plan for the realities of health care reform cost and compliance in 2014, Cunninghis said, “it’s really important to be nimble.” Employers may think they have a firm bead on health care changes at the moment, but many, she said, could use some help.

“You have to really stay on top of everything that’s happening, and I know that’s hard,” Cunninghis said. “Many of you have employees all over the world, so, to some degree, I would start leaning on others — whether it’s leaning on your health plan [or] other vendors that you work with. Make sure — literally on a weekly basis — that you’re on top of all the changes.”

Winkler agreed that it’s important benefits leaders seek assistance when they need it, but also cautioned that providers and vendors may be primarily seeking an opportunity, not necessarily serving an employer’s best interests. He urged employers to watch their backs and their bottom lines.

“One man’s cost savings is another man’s income reduction,” he said. “I think it’s a critical moment for employers to be activists … Work with your health plans, but don’t cede total control to them.”

Stone said that quality is tied to efficiency and warned that often, employers lose track of the former in search of the latter. “I think we need not to lose focus on quality,” she said, and that way employers can reach and enjoy the benefits of a cycle of good health among workers.

In addition to targeted messaging, Darling asked, how can employers move to the next stage of engagement on employee health care and wellness?

“You have to think of this as a marketing exercise, not a benefits communication exercise,” Winkler answered. He said “we have to take that targeted messaging to a new level,” to really squeeze every drop into return on investment, but he emphasized using language and formats that actually work.

“If you think about how we have all shifted to a new paradigm of communication — technology, texting, Skyping, — we changed our routines and patterns in a fundamental way and we’re not going back,” Stone said. “We need to change those same routines around health, health management, healthy eating, all of those things, so they really are routine” and health becomes a matter of natural course.

Cunninghis agreed about using natural English, but she said employer shouldn’t be looking beyond targeted language, but at how to change it. “The next generation … is very into the notion of self-serving,” she said, and they can be taught to seek out their own best-case health solutions.

“I think we’ve been very limited in how we target to people, and I think we should take that a step further and ask, how do we get people to target to themselves?” Cunninghis asked.

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