Telemedicine service offerings among large employers surged to 59% this year from just 30% in 2015, according to the largest annual health benefits survey of its kind with 2,544 participants. But producers who consider this avenue on behalf of their clients also need to devise strategies that help boost historically low use of this benefit.

Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans also noted the potential for significant savings when health plan members have a telephonic or video visit to assess some types of non-acute issues, especially before their annual deductible is met. A telemedicine visit typically is $40 versus $125 for a traditional office visit.

“Now we have to get people to use the service in order for members and plan sponsors to benefit from the offering,” suggests Tracy Watts, Mercer’s healthcare reform leader.

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The finding mirrors other recent research. Of 133 large U.S. employers surveyed earlier in the year by the National Business Group on Health, for example, 90% said they will make telehealth services available to employees in states where it is allowed next year. That represents a sharp increase from the current 70%. By 2020, the nonprofit group predicted that “virtually all large employer respondents will offer telemedicine,” while low utilization also is expected to increase steadily.

The rise of telemedicine is part of a larger consumerism movement whose multiple moving parts present challenges for health plan management. Enrollment in high-deductible consumer-directed health plans edged up to 29% from 25% within the past year. Mercer noted that coverage in plans that feature a health savings account cost 22% less, on average than a traditional PPO plan, even when large employer contributions to employee HSAs are included.

Resources needed

As these plans gain traction, Watts says it’s increasingly important for brokers and advisers to urge their clients to provide health plan members the necessary resources to “help them navigate their way through healthcare delivery in a very real time, personalized way.”

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She also believes the time has come for the benefits marketplace “to consider new programs that focus on paying for value, improving quality and providing more personalized benefit designs for their employees.”

Other key findings from the Mercer survey show:

  • Eighty-two percent of respondents cover visits to a retail clinic as another lower-cost and convenient option for their health plan members. Such a visit typically costs about $60 before the annual deductible is met.
  • With more employees moving into lower-cost medical plans, 2016’s average increase of 2.4% per employee is the lowest since 2013 and, prior to that, since as far back as 1997.
  • The total health benefit cost per employee is expected to rise by 4.1% on average next year for plans that purse cost-containment measures such as plan design changes, while those that do not initiate any changes estimate that cost would rise by an average of 6.3%.
  • The percentage of employers with 20,000 or more employees that provide transparency tools through a specialty vendor nearly doubled to 28% from 15% two years ago, while an additional 62% of respondents report that their health plan provides some type of transparency tool.
  • Drug benefit costs rose 7.4% on average and are expected to increase slightly to 7.9% during the next renewal period.
  • Nearly one-third of respondents encourage employees to track their physical activity with a “wearable” device, which is up from 24% last year, while 37% use mobile apps designed to motivate healthy behavior, which is up from 30%.
  • 54% of respondents offer a health advocacy service to help health plan members find the right healthcare provider, compare costs and resolve claims problems.

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