Employers continue to back wellness programs as a way to help control employee health care costs, even though many of them are operating in the dark when it comes to return on investment or the most effective strategies. The largest employers (20,000 employees or more) are the most likely to have done cost-benefit analyses on their workforce health management, but even in that group only 46% of employers have done so.

There's a lot of noise in the wilderness, say sources with the National Business Coalition on Health. Think identifying wellness priorities and action plans is as easy as a claims analysis? Think again. And even when you know your problem areas, choosing the best solution can be just as difficult.

To that end, NBCH has developed ValuePort, an online benefits administration and strategy tool designed to help employers adopt value-based health strategies tailored to their populations. Combining demographic information with data on resources, conditions on the ground and proven best strategies, ValuePort aims to change how HR looks at wellness.

"There's a lot of information available to employers, but it's often difficult for them to determine which programs to prioritize," says Tim F. Kowalski, chief medical officer, Progressive Corporation. "This new tool will help employers pinpoint areas for improvement and identify strategies that can make the most impact."

Tested in a pilot phase this year, ValuePort soaks in population information before offering up ways to cheaper health. The benefits analysis tool should fill in a gap for those looking "to better improve quality and control cost" says NBCH chief operating officer Karen Linscott.

She adds that her group questioned scores of employers about what could help meet their wellness needs.

"And they gave us a range of answers," Linscott says. "They really want evidence. They have all their friends call them, all their vendors call them, and say 'This is this best thing since sliced bread.' And they have a very hard time working through the evidence of what has truly been shown to be best practices."

Trio of tools

ValuePort consists of a trio of tools: a cost calculator to identify and prioritize areas for improvement, customized analysis of an employer's progress and evidence-based strategies for moving forward. Seven businesses tested it out in 2013, all of them with more than 40 employees.

One of those who took part in the pilot program is David Burnison, the director of HR for St. Vrain Valley Schools, a member of the Colorado Business Group on Health. Burnison says he could sense that his 4,000 employees - 3,200 of whom are benefits-eligible - would be well-served by ValuePort.

"Any good activity that helps us wade through the myriad options for [ways] to engage employees on value-based health management strategies - what can we do as an employer to provide support for keeping costs down to a minimum?" Burnison says. "We just felt like there were so many options out there today trying to get you to save money ... and we needed something that will narrow it down to the two or three strategies that could really work for us."

Some of the problems ValuePort exposed were ones Burnison already knew about: Odds are relatively good your population could stand to lose some weight, for example. But beyond dropping pounds and quitting smoking, sometimes there are health issues lurking below the surface, virtual benefits landmines. Here, ValuePort can be your metal detector.

"We get reports from our insurance brokers and consultants that say, 'Look, here's where you're spending most of your money.' It seems there are issues with obesity-related problems. Inactivity and healthful eating - we think those are two big categories that you have to look at," Burnison says. "But we also learned that we have a lot of stress needs and stress-related issues. Our staff is engaged heavily and it creates a lot of stress for our employees. And we found a number of stress-related items that probably weren't on our radar as much."

Where ValuePort really distinguishes itself, its advocates say, is in its best-practices recommendations. Burnison says it clears out the noise and offers common-sense, within-budget solutions.

"We have so much data about employees and about our health needs that we have to come up with where's the best value-driven strategy, as opposed one we just pick up somewhere, and that's probably where ValuePort came in, to narrow the field of those strategies of where we might get the best bang for the buck," he says.

His school district ultimately reports to the taxpayer, Burnison says, and thus is always mindful of price tags, but "more important that saving the cost in our district is trying to create this perspective that people have that work is a good place to be," he says. ValuePort is serving both those needs, he claims.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from various employees that we've targeted with some of our wellness strategies," he says. "They're saying these strategies, these activities that you're putting out for us, this makes sense to us, because it's resonating with their needs and where they are, as opposed to something that just goes on in an office."

Linscott says it's easy to go to meetings or skim trade publications scouring for the latest and best wellness ideas, "but it's very difficult to translate those kinds of high-level things into your personal population." ValuePort, she adds, helps employers "assess their own population, not some picture concept."
Burnison agrees, saying he's looking forward to seeing where the program leads next. "A product like ValuePort does the best job that I've seen so far of helping us target our needs and a price where we can start, as opposed to just looking at all the things and trying to do too many of them and not do any of them well," he says.

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