The disability and absence management landscape continues to undergo significant change. Most of the changes are driven by legal and regulatory requirements, which have increased in scale and scope over the past few years.

One of the more significant changes, of course, is the Affordable Care Act. We are only now beginning to see the disability management impacts driven by an increased emphasis on wellness, prevention and obesity. Disability and absence management professionals are learning a great deal more about these topics. The same is true of the issues surrounding the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Here are five trends to watch for in 2015.

1. Outsourcing of FMLA administration.

We are continuing to see an increase in the number of employers who are outsourcing FMLA administration. With the expansion of state and even local leave laws, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to stay on top of all of the compliance requirements. While smaller employers may turn to automated software, larger companies will outsource FMLA and other leaves of absence programs to specialized vendors that have the resources to manage a patchwork of national and even international laws and regulations.

2. Help with ADA administration.

More employers are asking for assistance from their current short-term disability, long-term disability insurance and FMLA partners to help them manage the ADA process. Many vendors have been developing tools and resources to help employers manage the accommodation requests and processes associated with ADA. These tools are accurate and, with economies of scale, increasingly cost effective. We will continue to see an increase in this co-management process.

3. More disability disclosure pressure.

The new federal disability hiring requirements have placed an additional reporting burden on employers. Employers must now invite applicants to disclose disability during the pre-offer and post-offer stage of employment and during the course of their employment, with a goal of 7% utilization for individuals with disabilities. Many employers are finding it difficult to get employees to disclose a disability and meet the goal. We expect to see more to come from these regulations, especially as plaintiffs’ attorneys get involved.

4. An increased interest in integrated absence and disability management.

More employers are now seeing the benefit of integrating their benefit and risk programs. In other words, melding workers' compensation, STD and LTD programs with FMLA and ADA compliance. The Disability Management Employer Coalition has been advocating this concept for more than 20 years, yet it is becoming more relevant today due to the many compliance requirements placed on employers that cross over traditionally siloed organizations.  The costs of noncompliance seems to have garnered the attention of the C-suite to now encourage departments within an organization to break down barriers. We will see more of this as companies move beyond focusing merely on compliance and recognize the cost and efficiency gains made through integration.

5. Even more emphasis on behavioral health.

 It has taken years of work by people like DMEC founder Marcia Carruthers, but more disability and absence management professionals, as well as health practitioners, understand the connection between the mind and body in absence, disability and overall health. Depression and other mental health issues are increasingly recognized as topics of major concern when it comes to assisting employees and driving down all health-related costs, including absence and disability. We expect to see more effective use of employee assistance programs, increased screening and other initiatives to identify and manage behavioral health issues.

As disability and absence increasingly become compliance as well as costs issues, they are beginning to catch the attention of those in the C-suite. That means we will all hear more about them in 2015 and years to come.

Terri L. Rhodes is executive director of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. She has worked as an absence and disability management consultant for Mercer and as director of absence and disability for Health Net and as corporate IDM program manager for Abbott Laboratories. She holds an MBA from Columbus University, is a Certified Professional in Disability Management and holds the Certified Case Management Professional designation from the Insurance Educational Association.

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