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Are consumers ready for consumer-driven health care?

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The changes taking place in the U.S. health care system have resulted in shifts in responsibility. An increasing number of employers have moved from HMO and PPO plans to consumer-driven or high-deductible plans. Consumers are about to take the driver’s seat. But are they ready?

While employers are placing more responsibility for health care decisions on their workers’ shoulders, workers are asking for increased guidance from their companies. In fact, more than half of employees surveyed in the 2013 Aflac WorkForces Report said, “I would prefer not to be in more control over my health insurance expenses and options because I will not have the time or knowledge to effectively manage them.”  And according to a poll of 5,299 wage earners across the country as part of the Aflac study, 72 percent of workers have never even heard the phrase “consumer-driven health care.”

Additionally, three-quarters of workers surveyed indicated they expect their employer to educate them about changes to their health care coverage as a result of reform; however, only 13 percent of employers say educating their employees about health care reform is important to their organization.

When it comes to matters of financial security or health care, it’s fair to say that many consumers would prefer for someone else to manage it, while another segment is simply not equipped to take ownership at all.

If consumers aren’t educated about the full scope of their options, they risk making costly mistakes without a financial backup plan. When asked how they would pay for out-of-pocket expenses because of an unexpected illness, more than half (59 percent) of workers said they would have to tap into savings, 28 percent would use a credit card and 24 percent — nearly one in four people — would have to withdraw funds from their 401(k) plans to cover the costs, according to the Aflac study.

A lack of communication not only exacerbates an already-dangerous information gap, but also forgoes opportunities to communicate benefits that can both satisfy worker demand and improve key aspects of the workplace, such as voluntary and supplemental offerings.

Here are three ways employers can help employees navigate the brave new world of healthcare.

1. Use a robust benefits portfolio to develop stronger relationships with employees who are questioning their coverage and financial security.

To help offset employees’ concerns with cost-shifting, employers should present a robust menu of benefits options, including supplemental or voluntary benefits from which employees can select.

Supplemental insurance allows for customization, which helps employees feel taken care of.  According to the Aflac study, 92 percent of workers at least somewhat agree that they would be more likely to take advantage of benefits packages tailored to their personal situations.

Offering competitive benefits also boosts employers’ ability to attract and retain a talented workforce with little or no cost to their bottom line.

2. Develop a communication plan that helps ensure employees understand and take full advantage of the available benefits.

Employers should leverage open enrollment to thoroughly communicate with their employees through a variety of channels, including print, electronic and face-to-face meetings, highlighting their robust menu of benefits as well as demonstrating how other employees have utilized them.

3. Work with a broker to help educate the workforce

Employers who use a broker communicate about employee benefits options much more frequently than those that don’t. The Aflac study revealed that 48 percent of companies working with brokers/benefit advisers communicate three or more times per year, compared to 30 percent of companies that don’t rely on external advice.

Because many American workers are financially insecure and lack a deep understanding of how health care reform will impact them, companies play a critical role in helping their employees understand the costs of not protecting their overall health. Helping workers learn to effectively manage their health care choices presents an opportunity for employers to demonstrate they care about their employees and can improve employee morale and productivity. Workers may well be the ones responsible for their health care decisions, but the wrong choices can affect their performance and state of mind in the workplace.

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