Benefits Column

Outsiders May Revolutionize Employee Benefits

A look back at some benefits issues in 2011 offer a glimpse into possible innovations in the healthcare field that could positively impact employers and employees alike.

Monday, December 19, 2011
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It's hard to resist the lure of a new year. Like a fresh blanket of snow, Jan. 1 brings the promise of a clean start, while it buries 12 months of lessons beneath the surface.

The close of 2011 causes me to think more than usual about where I see innovation taking place and what unexpected revolutions may occur in and around employee benefits.

As I reviewed my HREOnlineTM columns, one stood out to me time and again -- Should We Give Employees What They Want? The question also captured the attention of readers and YouTube viewers.

The highlight of writing that article was the time spent learning about employee perks provider BetterWorks, and speculating on ways they could bring additional services to the table.

BetterWorks was co-founded by three unlikely players -- a Marine turned entrepreneur and angel investor, and two Internet superstars associated with products and services such as PayPal, Yammer and Farmville.

Their lack of employee-benefits experience freed them to envision a different way to reward employees, enhance loyalty and improve productivity. In the BetterWorks world, employees choose from an ongoing variety of amenities ranging from meals to yoga classes to dog-walking services, some of which are "hyper-local perks" and others being discounts from national chains.

I can foresee BetterWorks bringing new meaning to the way employers offer ancillary benefits -- such as dental, vision and pet insurance -- by negotiating preferred-client discounts with the area's best dentists, vision specialists and veterinarians.

The fees employees would pay to such providers potentially could be the same or less than the combination of insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays. The result for workers would be access to high-quality services at a price that's fair to both employees and providers.

Now that could be a benefits innovation from an unexpected source.

In considering employee benefits, I don't get very far without thinking about healthcare and its costs. Two relatively new players in this space are a "mobile lifestyle" company and a retail chain: Jawbone and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., respectively

Jawbone feeds into one of the fastest growing personal lifestyle trends -- the movement called the "quantified self."

In April 2010, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story entitled The Data-Driven Life, which detailed some people's mounting obsession with tracking the minutiae of their lives -- not only how much and how well they slept, ate and exercised, but their genetic make-up, how they spent every moment of their day and where they went.

The Times isn't alone in recognizing the impact of self-driven data collection and sharing. The National Institutes of Health published an article in February 2009, assessing the potential power of social networks and "quantified self-tracking" on healthcare delivery and costs.

As HR executives, you, too, have an interest in at least some of this information, especially when it comes to reducing healthcare spend. Health-risk assessments, at minimum, are an annual snapshot of employees' health -- including workers' self-report and biometric data such as body weight and cholesterol levels.

Devices are playing a bigger role in capturing and encouraging employees' physical activity levels. It started a few years ago with pedometers and 10,000-steps-a-day programs.

Now, employees are coming into the workplace with Fitbits attached to their clothes and going to sleep with ZEO headbands wrapped around their foreheads. The Quantified Self Guide lists 502 tools currently available to track every aspect of life.

I must admit that all this hardware makes me somewhat skeptical. It's too cumbersome for me.

That was until Jawbone introduced its idea for comfortably tracking every aspect of your life. The UP is a system that combines the iPhone with a fitted wristband that together track your sleep patterns, how much you move and what you eat.

This is an idea I can get behind.

The wristband is unobtrusive and leverages the comfort we developed from wearing LIVESTRONG wristbands. And you never have to take it off -- not even in the shower. In the time I used the UP, I effortlessly gained good insight into how I slept, as well as how I moved and ate throughout the day.

Unfortunately, the first edition of the UP has given users a myriad of problems due to unforeseen glitches with the battery and synching the wristband and iPhone.

But, in a show of understanding how to work with consumers, Jawbone's CEO announced a No Questions Asked Guarantee four weeks after the product launch. My prior experience with Jawbone products leads me to feel confident in the re-launch of a stronger UP.

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Finally, I'd be remiss in talking about benefits innovation without acknowledging the recent posts concerning Walmart's request-for-information to help the retail giant build an integrated primary healthcare platform.

Although Walmart is downplaying the language from its RFI, it's not hard to imagine the company rethinking a system to deliver low-cost healthcare directly to the consumer.

Walmart's promise to its customers is "saving people money to help them live better." This commitment does not limit itself to retail sales and the broadness of its mission is somewhat reminiscent of Apple's move from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc.

If Walmart extends its now-limited presence in the retail-clinic model, it won't be without facing many of the same regulatory issues -- which vary on a state-by-state basis -- as other retail clinics, such as CVS Caremark MinuteClinic.

However, there may be promise in having an expert in low-cost product distribution consider how to maximize healthcare delivery.

I had a positive experience with retail healthcare services this year. And others like TechCrunch and Forbes see good things that could arise from the Walmart effect.

The Rand Corp.'s ongoing research into the impact of retail clinics provides early data indicating that costs for similar care are 30 percent to 40 percent lower in clinics than in physician's offices, and 80 percent cheaper than emergency-room visits.

We'll have to wait and see, but Walmart may turn out to be the ultimate outsider that changes the way healthcare services are delivered to employees and consumers alike.

Carol Harnett is a widely 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 and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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