Historically, employers have had to foot the bill for healthcare. Workers rarely understand how much this costs employers, but the marketplace is changing – fast. An industry previously reliant on employers absorbing the costs of employee health coverage is becoming a thing of the past, as employers seek to battle rising healthcare costs. One way employers are trying to control costs is through voluntary, incentive-based wellness programs. But a growing number demand that employees participate in programs or pay up.
Regardless of the approach, getting a wellness program in place can be successfully accomplished – especially with a professional knowledgeable in health and wellness management leading the effort. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 21-percent growth rate in this profession over the next decade. The University of Wisconsin’s online Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness Management program was created to meet this growing demand.
“The better a student understands what is necessary to build an effective health and wellness program, the more marketable he or she will be,” says Margaret Rehayem, senior director of strategic initiatives and communication for the Midwest Business Group on Health and a UW Health and Wellness Management program advisory board member. “It’s not just about writing up a one-size-fits-all plan. Students must understand the needs of the employer and how to educate, launch, and evaluate the effectiveness of a plan.”
Understanding employer needs goes beyond simple cost-cutting. The UW Health and Wellness Management program focuses on providing students the knowledge they need to manage and administer health and wellness programs across various departments and business units to help companies reduce healthcare costs and promote worker health (and consequently, productivity). As students put their knowledge to use in the workplace, they need to understand the relationship between the healthcare industry and the employers who provide worker benefits.
“We see employers engaging workers in a more proactive manner by teaching them about preventive healthcare measures,” Rehayem says. “This allows employers to be more realistic about what the company can and should provide. It also means employees will have no choice but to put more skin in the game and take more responsibility for their health.”
Employers are creating not only wellness plans that encourage employee participation through benefit and financial incentives, but also plans that require an employee to participate or face financial penalties. A Mercer poll highlighted in an online article by Human Resource Executives indicates 42 percent of companies with more than 500 employees offer financial rewards for participation, while 15 percent impose a penalty for nonparticipation. The Washington-based National Business Group on Health expects nearly 36 percent of U.S. companies to apply penalties by next year, and these penalties will include raising premiums and deductibles for employees who forego health and wellness management options. That number is expected to climb to 61 percent of employers by 2016.
Rehayem says this approach is the result of employers looking to find solutions to lower costs and to improve worker health. But creating and implementing these plans requires trained health and wellness management professionals. If plans are not carefully rolled out, employers can elicit a backlash from workers.
“If a plan is designed to encourage a high level of engagement, employees may take a more proactive role in their health,” Rehayem says. “But if the plan is rolled out with poor communication, or if it’s seen as punishment, it will backfire. It needs to be managed, and not over a short period of time, but over a long period of time.”
Health and wellness professionals can serve as liaisons to improving employer-employee relations and creating an environment that promotes well-being. Health and wellness management professionals can communicate incentives associated with wellness programs that can impact benefit plans, such as reduced deductibles.
“As we educate students to build health and wellness programs and send them out into the rapidly changing workforce, they must understand the needs of the industries they are seeking careers in,” Rehayem says. “It’s about empowering them not only to secure a job but to make a difference in that position.”