The outlook for the new year is a mixed one, as brokers will continue to face “unneeded stress” and compliance challenges. Those issues, combined with changes to the healthcare delivery model, will make 2016 another landmark year for the industry, experts say.

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1) ‘High deductible hangover’
A multi-generational workforce, decreasing unemployment and looming decisions regarding the Cadillac tax will “turn the high-deductible hype into a hangover as employees and employers grapple with the reality of what 'high deductible' really means,” says Rae Shanahan, chief strategy officer at online benefits administration company Businessolver in Des Moines, Iowa. “The HDHP hangover will continue to focus our industry on a holistic approach to employee benefits, redefining what constitutes the make-up of employee benefits.”

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2) Financial planning
The need to consider healthcare as part of the financial planning process will become clear, believes Seth Ravine, chief revenue officer at healthcare tech company Acclaris in Tampa, Fla. “As the trend of employers scaling back benefits continues, the financial burden of healthcare costs will increasingly fall squarely onto the shoulders of retirees,” Ravine says. “Healthcare expenses should be a primary concern when planning for retirement, so financial planners and consumers need to start planning ahead. That means not only thinking about how to save for the years ahead, but also learning how to best use the new financial assets and tax-free health care accounts, like HSAs, to their advantage, now and in the future.”

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3) ‘Unneeded stress’
“Legislation like the Cadillac tax will continue to create unneeded stress,” Acclaris’ Ravine says. “Employers must focus on driving down overall spending through more effective consumer engagement initiatives so legislation becomes a non-issue.”As 2018 looms one year closer, employers who start now will be well ahead of those who wait and scramble at the last minute to avoid the hefty tax, he adds.

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4) Consumer-driven health plans
In 2016, more employers will introduce consumer-driven health plans, which will require a real commitment to educating employees, says Tm Doherty, president of Pinnacle HR Solutions in Needham, Mass. “Traditional paper-based communication efforts won’t be enough — top-performing employers will expand communication via mobile and web-based platforms,” he says.

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5) Increases to marketing and branding
In 2016, insurance agency marketing and branding will emerge as the clear point of delineation between agency competitors, say Kevin Trokey and Wendy Keneipp, principals of brokerage consulting firm Q4intellegence. “Embracing clear, defined, consistent communication as the first step of any activity — from selling to recruiting to internal changes — is going to be the clear differentiator between those who thrive and those who slip into irrelevance,” they say.

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6) Compliance challenges
In 2015, compliance with healthcare reform and rising costs were two of the biggest challenges for employer-sponsored health plans. In the coming year, “remaining current and strategically planning ahead for legislative and regulatory changes requires us as consultants to be constantly vigilant in order to mitigate existing and/or eliminate future penalty exposures for our clients,” says Matt Robinson, employee benefits consultant at USI Insurance Services LLC, The Carolinas. “In addition, we work with our clients on a wide range of customized cost containment measures including alternative funding, wellness, disease management strategies and many others."

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7) Wearables driving wellness
In this coming year, “more and more companies will integrate wearable devices into their wellness programs,” says Elizabeth Halkos, chief revenue officer of Purchasing Power in Atlanta. “Wearables are creating an employee engagement factor that is the shot in the arm that many corporate wellness programs needed. A growing number of companies are even helping employees with purchasing one by subsidizing the cost and allowing payroll deduction to cover the cost.”

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8) Technology changes
In 2015, technology firms were circling “with the hopes of disrupting the benefits value chain,” says Mike Simonds, president and CEO of Unum US. “Fundamentally, they are better equipped to handle the complexity, high volume transactions and heightened compliance concerns that come with consumer-driven benefits. ... However, incumbents bring the deep experience to support employers in designing and executing the strongest benefit strategies,” Simonds adds. “The emerging winners will likely represent combinations of the two.”

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9) Innovative models
Innovative healthcare models deliver improved outcomes, says Chris Thurin, managing principal, Digital Benefit Advisors in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “I expect 2016 to be a turning point as more employers begin to better understand how care models such as patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations can help improve population health and reduce healthcare expense,” he says. “Stronger employer demand for integrated care and higher levels of care coordination will reward innovative and collaborative healthcare providers and [hopefully] inspire more providers to take action."

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