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Plan designer: Mind the productivity gaps

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Employers need to look at how benefits arrangements affect worker productivity, not just their share of the premium bill.

Alex Dumont, a life and disability product designer at the U.S. unit of Sun Life Financial Inc. (TSX:SLF), talked about the importance of taking worker productivity into account in a recent interview.

She sees the traditional employer-paid group benefits market holding steady, and voluntary benefits product demand growing.

“Prospect activity is slowly starting to climb,” Dumont said.

But Dumont said she is hearing more conversations these days about the possibility that efforts to hold down major medical costs may be hurting employers’ efforts to keep workers productive, at work, and off the disability insurance benefits rolls.

See also: Disability benefits may cut workers’ comp costs

Employers, benefits groups, consultants and others have talked for years about measuring return on investments on wellness and condition management programs. But Dumont said she is also interested in hearing more about how gaps in coverage affect employees’ ability to adhere to medical advice, and about how problems with adherence may hurt an employers’ benefits costs and overall performance.

Measuring the effects of coverage gaps “is an area of opportunity,” Dumont said.

Call centers, for example, are known for having employees who use a higher-than-average level of mental health services, Dumont said. She said offering relatively simple, low-cost options, such as quick and easy access to employee assistance program (EAP) counseling sessions, might help keep those employees’ small problems from turning into big, expensive problems.

Federal agencies are now developing the rules they will use to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) “Cadillac plan” program, which is set to impose a 40 percent excise tax on high-cost health plans. If regulators end up including health savings account (HSA) money in the cost total that could cut into the resources workers are using to patch gaps in employer-paid benefits, Dumont said.

The fewer resources workers have to patch coverage gaps, the more likely it is that the gaps will lead to productivity or benefits cost problems, not just a minor level of annoyance, Dumont said.

May is Disability Insurance Awareness Month (DIAM).

Dumont said she sees signs the marketing campaign is working. ”I think we do see a lift,” she said.

Millennials, in particular, are much more interested in hearing about income protection than she expected. The way to turn their interest into sales is to offer them materials in clear, plain language, and to help them find and use the kinds of calculators and other tools developed by the Council for Disability Awareness (CDA), Dumont said.

See also: U.S. group disability market returns to work