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How your company can save money, boost performance, and improve healthcare for vulnerable employees during COVID-19 and beyond

When budgets get tight, benefits are a frequent place for companies to make cuts. Employers choose to reduce options and pass on more expenses to employees.

That may be a misguided approach, says Lee Murphy, Ph.D., the CEO of Inspera Health.

Murphy says companies can both cut costs and help employees improve their health and wellbeing by investing more in employees with multiple chronic health conditions. 

Twenty-eight percent of American adults have three or more chronic conditions such as arthritis, asthma, kidney disease, heart failure, depression, diabetes, or hypertension. These individuals account for 67% of healthcare expenditures. And if obesity – recognized as a chronic condition by the AMA in 2013 – is included, the numbers are even greater.

Current circumstances exacerbate the problem: people with multiple chronic conditions are more likely to be hospitalized due to Covid-19, according to recent studies in the U.S. and China.

Murphy’s company works with these individuals, helping them access care and make lifestyle changes that improve their overall wellbeing and have a positive impact on their workplaces. This approach can generate a 30% or greater improvement in participant health and a 30% or greater reduction in ongoing costs, making it a win-win for both the employee and the organization.

Improving healthcare (especially for low wage workers) during the pandemic and beyond

“Covid-19 has made us much more cognizant of the inequities of the commercially insured population, especially at the lower income level of the spectrum,” says Bruce Sherman, M.D., a Medical Advisor for National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and a Clinical Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine.

The presence of multiple chronic conditions also is often higher among low income employees, like essential workers, Sherman adds.

“You have to start by looking for vulnerabilities to find the opportunities,” says Murphy.

Companies like Inspera Health help employers analyze their health data, identifying the financial and productivity cost of individuals with multiple chronic conditions. Then, employers make new benefits available to employees with chronic conditions, giving them personal support for making lifestyle changes. As health improves, so does work quality.

One of Murphy’s clients had a non-clinical position in an emergency room. She lived at an intersection of complications: obesity, pre-diabetes, non-compliance with medication, pain in multiple locations, medical debt, and food insecurity.

After entering the program, her health and her outlook completely transformed, says Murphy. “She exercises daily, makes healthy food choices, checks her blood pressure regularly, paid off her medical debt, is saving for a house, lost over 70 pounds, almost doubled her sleep hours, and has recently received two promotions.” She is not only healthier, but her future health costs will be significantly lower and her productivity at work is greatly improved.

Stories like this one point toward the intersecting realities that increase an employee’s health vulnerability. In addition to having multiple chronic conditions, the client was a low-income wage earner.

“When we think about who the individuals are that perhaps have the greatest exposure [to Covid-19] at work because they are deemed essential workers, many have concerns of multiple chronic conditions and affordability,” says Sherman.

They also have the least ability to afford medical care should they become sick.

Employees in the lowest-wage group had half the usage of preventive care, nearly twice the hospital admission rate, more than four times the rate of avoidable admissions, and more than three times the rate of emergency department visits relative to top wage group earners.

As a result, employers end up spending more on healthcare costs for these low wage earners than for middle wage employees. Better investment in wellbeing and healthcare up front, through programs like Inspera Health, more preventative care, or lower premiums, might save money in the long run and lead to better business outcomes like worker productivity and profit.

Because low wage earners are disproportionately Hispanic or Black, this is not just a healthcare issue, it is an opportunity for business leaders to address systemic racism and build more inclusive organizations.

“It’s a systemic issue with huge individual impact. Health insurance and healthcare systems are stacked against the population we serve. As a result, they don’t have access to the resources they need, their health deteriorates, they are unable to thrive at work and in life, and they suffer immeasurably. Programs like ours are a systemic solution that allows companies to save money on healthcare costs and provide employees with multiple chronic conditions the resources they need to make a significant difference in both their work and personal lives,” says Murphy.

How better healthcare benefits drive better performance

Providing better health insurance options may also improve business performance, says Sherman.

Writing in the American Journal of Managed Care, Sherman and colleague Wendy Lynch, Ph.D., share data from a manufacturing firm that found an intriguing association between healthcare costs and work quality. Lower average annual employee healthcare costs – presumably resulting from less illness burden – were associated with greater quality work output. In financial terms, for every $1000 less spent on employee healthcare, $2000 of value was generated in waste reduction (lower proportion of defective product was manufactured).

Understanding the true benefits of providing quality health insurance is difficult, says Sherman. “We know there are a whole host of metrics that go beyond the traditional narrow focus of ROI. Few employers have performed the analytics that could be done. Of the available case examples, the results are pretty compelling.”

He cites several areas of positive impact: reduced healthcare costs; improved work quality, employee job satisfaction, and retention; reduced turnover; higher profitability and customer satisfaction.

Leveraging better health for better performance

How can employers see these benefits? Murphy says it begins with taking a fresh look at your organization’s health cost data.

“You’ve got to break out of the fiscal cycle as a way of looking at healthcare costs,” says Murphy. Instead of looking at the last 12 months, consider 3 years of data and watch for categories of spending.

This fresh look will likely reveal high cost groups, including those with multiple chronic conditions. “Then you can look at your analytics: what do they spend? What’s their number of disability days? What’s their productivity?” Murphy suggests.

The obvious next question is, “How do I support them?”

That, Murphy says, is where you find the opportunity to positively benefit employee wellbeing and productivity, while lowering long term health costs. 

 

This article was written by Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.