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Benefits Column

Benefits That Strike a Chord

In her first employee-benefits column, Carol Harnett highlights two innovative ways employers can combine imagination with good medical outcomes, decreased costs and increased employee satisfaction. Carol is a highly respected employee benefits consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter.

Monday, October 26, 2009
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I am a Bruce Springsteen fan. Along with my friend, Pete Church, who is an HR executive, I recently ventured to the Apollo Theater to watch the taping of Elvis Costello's interview show, Spectacle, with The Boss.

On the drive home, we found ourselves discussing some of Springsteen's points about how to make linkages with audiences and relating it to our work. Springsteen says music is more than melody and lyrics. If Bruce can't place a fingerprint on our imaginations, can't connect to his listeners, then his songs are simply notes and words.

But how do HR leaders create benefit plans that strike a chord with our employees? For my first column in HREOnlineTM, I searched for employers and service providers who combine imagination with good outcomes, decreased costs and increased employee satisfaction.

One innovator is Tom Emerick, who has spent the last 25 years working in benefit design for BP, Burger King and, most recently, Wal-Mart, where he was vice president of global benefit design.

In the 1980s while at BP, Emerick realized that a small percentage of employees drove a large portion of the benefit dollars. He began a multi-phase pilot that incentivized transplant candidates to go to the Mayo or Cleveland Clinics for evaluation and surgery, if deemed appropriate.

And thus was born one of the first employer-sponsored domestic medical-travel programs. Emerick was recently recognized by Healthspottr as one of the top 100 innovators in healthcare for this work.

He has gone on to evolve his approach, saying it's key for employers to first establish a tracking methodology to identify employees at high health risk and then "picking out the right place and getting the employees there."

What makes the places "right?" Emerick believes it's the medical facilities' ability to achieve "desired patient outcomes in the safest and least invasive way." Examples include Intermountain Healthcare, Geisinger Health System, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America, he says.

Emerick says that if even one high-risk employee participates in a year, the savings can be an immediate 5-percent reduction in benefit costs, so it's probably no surprise that more employers today are actively considering medical travel as part of their health benefit plans.

Another innovator is Dr. Natalie Hodge -- a pediatrician who carries an iPhone and tablet computer in her medical bag.

Four years ago, she made the decision to view her patients and their parents as customers. In addition to their wish for easier communication, including by phone and e-mail, she responded to their desire for house calls instead of office visits.

I don't know about you, but I haven't experienced a house call since Dr. Patrick came to see me when I was around 5 years old. My vague memory before he arrived is of my mom swathing me in blankets despite having a fever. The first thing Dr. Patrick did was strip off the blankets. I don't remember much else, but I loved him ever since.

After taking care of me, my pediatrician went into our kitchen, sorted through the things I could eat and drink, and sent my dad out with a list of items to purchase.

Hodge says that's exactly how it works today. The only difference is that she uses technology to bring her office to the patient. "Babies start with a clean slate of medical records," she says, "so it's easy to create their record electronically and give the parents access to it online."

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Hodge now operates an e-commerce business called Personal Medicine International Inc., to help other physicians follow in her concierge medicine footsteps.

What makes Personal Medicine interesting to employers is that it may be used in conjunction with high-deductible health plans as an option or an add-on. Employers can seed the employee's health-savings account or health-reimbursement account with funds to offset the monthly fee or purchase the service directly for workers. Employees can opt to cover one or several of their children, a dependent older parent or the whole family.

Since physicians see their patients wherever it's convenient, parents can go to work and the doctors will meet them at their offices or the childcare centers. Employees are more productive and satisfied with their benefits. And as the H1N1 flu virus heats up, parents can avoid hospitals and the risk of cross-contamination.

For me, what is interesting about both of these approaches to employer-provided healthcare is that employees received equal -- or better -- care in a way that may be more meaningful to them -- and employers gain cost savings within the first year.

This avenue of connecting employer goals with employee desires reminds me of some thoughts from the man himself, Bruce Springsteen, as quoted in an Oct. 17, 2007 Rolling Stone interview.

"My business ... is trying to connect to you ... . You are involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave your children. What are the things that bring you ecstasy and bliss, what are the things that bring on the darkness, and what can we do together to combat those things?"

Carol Harnett is a highly respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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