One of my clients sponsors a self-funded group medical plan. The third-party administrator is a name brand healthcare company you know. As is common, this employer invests in case management (aka care management) and disease management services from the same TPA. Recently, we reviewed this TPA’s disease and case management engagement report for this employer. The results were less than stellar. For example, of the dozens of identified candidates for the diabetes management program, zero had been engaged. A big goose egg.

Digging into the disease management data, we discovered that 20% of the outreaches to eligible employees and dependents reached dead phone numbers. 20%. One in five.

Does this discovery sound familiar? In my travels over the last 20 years, I’ve never quite understood why it continues to be such a challenge for many employers to collect, house and transmit employee and dependent contact information to benefit vendors. Circa 2016, the answer isn’t that employees don’t have phones. The answer is not that employers aren’t investing heavily into sophisticated HRIS systems. And, the answer is not that eligibility files cannot effectively transmit other data points.

So, what’s the answer? And, what’s the solution? While we can debate how effective these various clinical programs are once the TPA or specialty vendor has reached the employee or dependent, if the nurse doesn’t have the phone number, the ROI is 0%.

Someone I know that spends a lot of time thinking about employee communications is Janet McNichol, the HR director for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. I asked her to weigh in on this riddle.

Q: Tell us about the way your organization goes about collecting employee and dependent phone numbers and transmitting those to your vendors. Have your efforts been successful?

A: Our employees provide contact information during their first-day orientation. We enter those data into our HRIS. New employees also provide contact information for our “One Call Now”— the system we use for urgent messaging. We’re in the process of implementing a new recruitment module, so eventually, candidates will enter their contact information themselves.

Q: Which phone number fields do your HRIS track (e.g., home, mobile, work)? Is completion of those fields optional?

A: We can track as many phone numbers as we want. We generally have home, work and cell phone numbers for our staff.

Q: In your experience, do many employees object to sharing their mobile or home phone number?

A: No.

Q: Is employee self-service via HRIS systems improving or worsening this situation?

A: We’re still rolling out our self-service access, but I think it will help, especially if it’s in a system people use routinely. We integrated our timekeeping, payroll and HR systems, so now staff are in the system often. It should make it easier for folks to review their information and keep it current.

Q: Twenty years ago, was it just as challenging to obtain employee and dependent phone numbers?

A: It’s easier to get the numbers now but harder to get people to answer their phones.

Q: What additional suggestions do you have for employers on this topic?

A: While our HRIS houses home, work and cell phone numbers for our staff, the resulting 834 file that transmits to our TPA only includes home and work. And, our TPA reports that it would be a significant undertaking to add another phone field to its system. Thus, given our society’s general migration away from home phones and to cell phones, we are evaluating if simply swapping out the home phone number for the cell phone number on the 834 file makes sense. Regardless, I recommend that employers take 10 minutes and double-check which phone numbers are housed in their HRIS and which numbers are transmitting to the health plan insurer, administrator or specialty vendor.

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