We all know that employee wellness is the buzz in many organizations. In fact, a recently released health and productivity survey by Willis North America's human capital practice showed that senior leadership commitment to improving employee health significantly increased to 42% in 2010, compared with 6% in 2009.

So, it's safe to say the employee wellness program engine is running. But what's under the hood? Taking a cursory look, one may see a health insurance carrier's program powering the motor, while others might see a third-party wellness vendor's program. Some may even see both. It's in your best interest to take an even deeper look at the engine because you'll most likely be the one driving the car and will want to ensure it stays on the road and doesn't break down.

Recently, as part of my role on my employer's wellness committee, I had the opportunity to sit down with four major national health insurance carriers and four third-party wellness program vendors to determine the wellness value-add they could bring to our clients. Through my conversations with them, I took the opportunity to understand how they powered their clients' wellness engines. As you consider your different wellness program options, there are many questions to be asked. Outside of the obvious questions, here are some additional ones I would ask of an insurance carrier:

* Is there any free money? Check with the carrier to see if any "wellness dollars" are available. These are funds provided by the carrier to support your wellness program initiatives.

* How is data mining conducted? Learn whether the carrier can use your company's medical claims data to pinpoint the initiatives you should consider and focus on in your wellness program (i.e., high incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease could lead you to consider introducing a smoking cessation program). Please note: The opportunity to use this data is often based on the size of the employer, funding method used and/or the types of medical plans being offered.

* What free services are provided? If considering introducing a health risk assessment or biometric screenings as part of your wellness program, check with the carrier to see if they can be provided for free or if the carrier wellness dollars can be used to pay for them.

* Can dependents participate? Understand the eligibility requirements for the carrier's program, because some carriers will allow an employee's spouse and/or dependents to participate in their wellness initiatives.

* Is nonmember participation allowed as well? Determine the reach of the carrier's program because some carriers will allow employees enrolled in a different medical insurance plan to participate in their wellness program initiatives.

* What are the multiple tools and activities? Often, it truly takes getting under the hood of the carrier's wellness program to understand all of the tools, education and initiatives available. Be sure to ask for a demonstration of everything available, including employee discount programs.

* What's beyond the medical carrier? Think in terms of carriers that can provide employee wellness value. For example, many employee assistance program carriers have wellness tools available as well.

* What opportunities are there for data sharing? Determine whether the carrier will provide medical claims data to your third-party wellness vendor, if you use one. This will allow the vendor to have an even better idea of what's occurring in your employee population beyond the results from other tools such as HRAs and biometric screenings.

If you're considering using a third-party vendor's employee wellness program, here are some tips:

* Seek a "best-of-both-worlds" program. Ask the vendor if they will incorporate the "right fit" components of the carrier's program into their wellness program - such as education, free/discount HRAs and screenings, and wellness dollars - and will work directly with them as warranted.

* Understand wellness program goals and metrics. Determine how results will be tracked and provided from the vendor, including whether their process will meet your organization's short- and long-term wellness goals and expectations (e.g., goal achievement, metrics, return-on-investment measurements, etc.)

* Determine workload responsibility. Know how much work you are going to be responsible for vs. how much the vendor will handle. Don't underestimate the amount of tedious work that needs to go into running effective wellness programs (e.g., employee communications, incentive management, goal tracking, results tracking, etc.)

* Respect your demographic. Think about your geographic dispersion, computer accessibility, and illiteracy and language barriers. Determine whether the vendor's program has the capabilities to reach and engage all of your employees effectively.

* Uncover hidden costs. Ask about any extra costs (i.e., not part of the core pricing) that you will reasonably need to assume to ensure the success of your wellness program.

For example, financial incentives and program "buy ups" may be strongly recommended as a best practice to achieve optimal results.

* Seek a one-stop-shop opportunity. If the vendor has an online wellness portal for employees, and you use a single sign-on system (e.g., one login for timesheets, self-service, training, etc.), ask them if you can incorporate their logon into your single sign-on system. This will avoid the employees having to remember another ID and password.

* Commit to results. Ask the vendor if they will provide financial performance guarantees for the results they are committed to achieving (e.g., achieving ROI, customer service metrics, etc.).

* Integrate data incorporation. If medical claims data is available, learn whether the vendor will accept and incorporate it into determining the right-fit wellness needs of your organization.

Contributing Editor Ed Bray, JD, is director of compliance for Burnham Benefits Insurance Services and Burnham Gibson Financial Services. Contact him at bray@burnhambenefits.com.

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