Even as employers begin implementing the first measures of health care reform in preparation for upcoming open enrollment, they are recognizing a critical need for new ways to keep their health care costs down and their employees healthier and more productive. 

Health care reform can bring innovative plan design to the forefront

Even as employers begin implementing the first measures of health care reform in preparation for upcoming open enrollment, they are recognizing a critical need for new ways to keep their health care costs down and their employees healthier and more productive.

The good news is that Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) helps accelerate the quest for better ways of providing health care, and presents some opportunities for employers to do so.

"Health care reform is ushering in an era of innovative health care design and moving us away from the traditional way of thinking," said Jim O'Connell, a Ceridian consultant on health care reform legislation. "For employers, it's important they begin that creative process."

In a recent Ceridian survey of more than 1,000 employers, about 42 percent of respondents said they expect to control rising health care costs through plan redesign, and about 25 percent are considering greater adoption of consumer-directed health care programs. More than half, about 53 percent, plan to promote wellness and personal responsibility to manage future health expenses.

One of the key ways to confronting rising health care costs is to build employee participation into a health plan, according to Jennifer Bichsel, Vice President of U.S. Benefits for Ceridian. Employers recognize this and are moving toward consumer-driven health care programs, such as those that include tax-advantaged benefits.

"Flexible Spending Accounts, Health Savings Accounts and Health Reimbursement Arrangements can help employees better manage their medical costs and provide employers with ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace," Bichsel said. "But these plans don't just happen; to succeed and thrive they must be properly communicated, expertly implemented and continually well managed."

Even then, it's a challenge to get employees to take personal responsibility of their own health, said Zachary Meyer, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Ceridian Health & Productivity Solutions.

"The information and tools necessary to help employees make good decisions about their health care are often not in place or adequate," Meyer said. "The success of wellness programs hinges on whether employees participate. But clearly, employers who can boost program enrollment have healthier employees and, in turn, healthier businesses."

Under health care reform, small employer wellness grants are slated to come into effect this fall. They are designed to help employers initiate wellness programs that will ultimately keep costs down.

But with new pressures to comply with PPACA requirements, how can employers also focus on the future impact of health care reform to their businesses?

"Attack health care reform within your organization as you would launch any new high-priority project," said Bart Valdez, Executive Vice President and General Manager for Ceridian Benefits Services. "Assign a task force and begin asking business-oriented questions: What do health care reform changes mean to our bottom line? How are the changes going to impact our employees and their dependents? How do we define a successful benefits plan, let alone quantify it? Are our key assumptions about the impact of health care reform realistic? What are the implications if we wait to make plan design changes and do nothing this open enrollment season?

"There's a lot of opportunity to keep health care costs down," Valdez said. "But it begins with innovation. We're only scratching the surface on rethinking what health plans will look like in the coming years."

Federal health care Web site: www.healthcare.gov