Health care reform creates unprecedented opportunities for employers to demonstrate support for the health and well-being of their employees, including female workers, experts say. 

Health care reform: An opportunity to support women employees

Health care reform creates unprecedented opportunities for employers to demonstrate support for the health and well-being of their employees, including female workers, experts say.

"The changes that have been taking place with health care reform touch upon very personal and emotional issues for employees and their families, especially women," said Charles Daye, senior vice president of human resources for Ceridian. "Using communication as a tool to create trust and loyalty around these changes will pay off for years to come."

Women are health care decision-makers
While health care is vital to everyone, generally women have greater involvement with the health care system over their lifetimes than do men. Women typically play a central role in coordinating their own health care needs plus the care of multiple generations of family members, including children, spouses and aging parents. 

"Most employers definitely know that women are the primary decision-makers when it comes to health care," said Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of Benz Communications, an employee benefits communication company. Women tend to choose their families' insurance benefits, select their doctors and manage their appointments.

"Health care reform has already brought about many changes for women in the workplace," Daye said. "Employers who demonstrate that they can understand and respond to their female workers' concerns about health care and coverage options are more likely to retain these employees."

Therefore, it's important for employers to be aware of the effect that health care reform is having on women, to be sensitive to the personal nature of some of the issues at hand, and to proactively address changes affecting their employees.

Honest communication is critical
 Some key health care reform provisions impacting women and families:
  • Prohibit insurance companies from charging higher premiums based on gender, pre-existing conditions or occupation
  • Ban lifetime limits on coverage
  • Define maternity and newborn care as essential health benefits that must be covered
  • Require many preventive services for women to be covered at no cost (for example: mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, etc.)
  • Expand Medicaid eligibility to a greater number of uninsured, low-income families
  • Eliminate cost sharing for annual "well visit" check-ups for women, men and children
  • Establish new workplace protections for nursing mothers, such as required break times and private spaces to express milk
  • Require Medicaid coverage of tobacco cessation support for pregnant women
  • Require no-cost coverage for contraception
  • Offer tax credits to encourage more small businesses to offer coverage to their employees
  • Create health insurance exchanges through which uninsured women may obtain coverage at subsidized rates
  • Allow adult children up to age 26 to be covered on their parents' health insurance plans
  • Require group health plans to provide direct access to OB/GYN care (without a referral or pre-authorization)
Benz said the key to communicating with employees about health care is to make it relevant. "If you're adding a lot of preventive care coverage for the first time, try telling a story around it," she said. Explain how preventive care can help them stay healthy, or perhaps provide an example of how a free cancer screening helped save someone's life. 

"Also make sure the whole family has access to the health care information you provide to employees," she said. Employers often send important benefits information directly to employees' homes, rather than distributing these materials at work.

Benz said that the best policy is to talk openly with female workers about how health care changes may affect them. For instance, health care reform includes a provision that defines maternity and newborn care as essential health benefits that must be covered by insurance. "It's really hard to talk open and honestly about health care for women and  not talk about maternity care," Benz said.

Employers have a vested interest in educating their employees who are expectant mothers. Preterm birth, for instance, is one of the most expensive complications of pregnancy in the United States. Nearly half of the total $26 billion annual cost of preterm births falls to employers and other private insurers. 

Benz said that free business tools are available to help employers enhance their current benefits communications, and to more easily offer health education to their employees. For example, Benz Communications has partnered with text4baby, a program of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, to create a toolkit and templates for employers to use when communicating with employees about the topics of maternal and infant health.

Daye said, "Clear, open and honest communication is critical at a time like this. Take a proactive approach to health care reform and relay any resulting health plan changes to employees in a concise, easy-to-understand manner. Explain why you are making the changes. Women, and of course men too, will appreciate your candor, as well as your ongoing support of their health care needs."

How has health care reform impacted your female employees? Post a comment below.

For more information:

  • View required health plan coverage guidelines for women
  • Read an HHS press release on women's health care
  • Access free employer resources from Benz Communications