Insurance companies aren’t known for their stellar customer service. In the recent 2013 Temkin Experience Ratings, the health plan industry ranked second to last in terms of customer experience, tied with Internet service providers and just above TV service providers. The majority of those surveyed, in fact, ranked their experience with health plans as “okay” to “very poor.”

“Most people don’t trust their insurance company,” says Jack Stoddard, chief operating officer with Accolade, a health assistant and advocacy company. Member services teams at insurance companies are “hired for transactions and they look at these conversations [with plan members] as transactions and they’re trying to do it as efficiently as possible,” he says.

Transforming employees’ experience with their health care can pay big dividends, particularly as the benefits industry moves toward a more consumer-driven model, believes Stoddard.

“We know navigating the health care system and all those resources is pretty complicated for people,” says Ken Fairchild, vice president of global rewards with Medtronic, a medical technology company. “Access to information only goes so far. So, how do you help people navigate the system with the goals of making them better consumers – both from a cost standpoint and an effectiveness standpoint – and try to drive better outcomes? That’s what our goal has been over the past two to three years from a health benefits perspective.”

According to the fourth annual National Business Group on Health/Fidelity Investments Benefits Consulting survey, released in February, about half of companies offered a health care advocacy or health care navigator service to their employees in 2012.

“It’s been around for a few years but it’s getting to become more common,” says Adam Stavisky, senior vice president with Fidelity Investments’ benefits consulting business. “And [there will be] a little bit of growth coming for 2013.”

Among organizations that offer wellness program incentives, 12% provide incentives for the use of health care navigators or advocates, according to the NBGH/Fidelity survey.

“As incentives go, it’s one of the least common actions an employee can take to earn an incentive,” says Stavisky.

Medtronic launched Accolade’s health assistant services for its roughly 25,000 U.S. employees in 2011. Since then, “it appears to us we probably saved 1% in terms of our trend,” says Fairchild. “Where our health care costs were increasing year-over-year in the neighborhood of around 6%, we’re seeing our trend shift to 4% to 5%.”

And while it was a big change to get employees used to calling a third-party for health care coverage questions and claims help, Fairchild says “the overwhelming feedback we’ve been getting from employees has been very positive.”

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