Wrestling With Metrics

A session at the first-ever Health & Benefits Leadership Conference aims to show how employers are relying on an expanded set of metrics to manage health and productivity data, and to foster a healthier workforce.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013
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The way employers manage workforce health is evolving. HR and benefits professionals have gone beyond simply overseeing benefits programs to playing a more active role in facilitating better overall employee health.

Some companies that have been successful in this effort to foster a healthier workforce have established a set of "business-relevant" metrics to track and measure worker health, define population health goals, plan programs and understand their impact.

HR leaders from two such companies will share their stories during "10 Essential Health Metrics: How AmEx and O'Neal Industries Make an Impact," a session scheduled for Tuesday, April 23, at 1 p.m., at the first-ever Human Resource Executive ® Health & Benefits Leadership Conference™, being held April 22 through 24 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

At this session, Wayne N. Burton, global corporate medical director for American Express, and Donna Cornwell, O'Neal Industries' director of human resources, will discuss how their companies have identified and used a series of essential health metrics -- financial expenditures, program participation, biometric screenings, health-risk factors, utilization of medical care and prevalence of chronic conditions, for example -- to guide a broader, more involved approach to workforce population health.

The two organizations represented in the session share a common mind-set with regard to managing employee health, says John Riedel, president of Conifer, Colo.-based Riedel and Associates Consultants Inc., who will be presenting the session along with Burton and Cornwell.

"First, the senior management teams at these companies understand the business value of a healthy workforce," says Riedel. "They also appreciate the importance of this set of metrics in terms of gaining insight and looking at broad health issues successfully. And they understand that you need to work with external data managers to have that success."

Data Strategies for Managing Health and Productivity, a report co-authored by Riedel and the San Francisco-based Integrated Benefits Institute, analyzed recently how workforce health and productivity is managed at American Express and O'Neal Industries as well as Barrette Outdoor Living, a Middleburg Heights, Ohio-based PVC and aluminum manufacturer with 725 employees.

The report revealed these employers "know that the impact of workforce health goes far beyond expenses for medical care," said Thomas Barry, IBI president, in a statement announcing the study findings. "At the same time, employers often don't know what to ask for, are inundated with health-related benefits program data they don't need, or can't get the data they do need to make good decisions."

Indeed, says Riedel, "companies have trouble accessing data from disparate sources" in a way that allows for a true assessment of workforce health. "That's just a reality for many employers," he says. "The other thing is employers -- even large ones -- typically lack the critical internal resources to do this."

This difficulty underscores the importance of turning to external partners to facilitate the process, he says. American Express, for example, relies on a variety of vendors. The first relationship to be forged is with a third party to serve as a data warehouse.

"That's a critical relationship," says Riedel. "Your health plans have data on direct medical costs. So they have to play and be willing to provide data into this data warehouse. That takes time and effort."

For AmEx, the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center acts as an integrated report generator and analyzer. Another vendor serves as a repository and scrubber of the data collected, and passes the clean data to the university. Group health and pharmacy data come from the American Express third-party administrator, while Family and Medical Leave Act and workers' compensation data come from a single-sourced vendor, for instance.

O'Neal Industries is working with its health-and-productivity management providers as well as wellness health managers and consultants to further develop a strategic plan and perform program and data analysis; the company is also exploring data-warehouse options.

When evaluating potential partners, HR and benefits leaders must make vendors aware that the ability to fulfill these duties is a prerequisite to winning the company's business, says Riedel.

"You've got a wide array of parties that have to participate to make your data accessible and to put it together in a format that works," he says. "And, it's important that HR takes a lead role in making sure that's all happening. A lot of these sources of data are within the HR department. There's where the responsibility lies."

Essential Outcomes

Putting this data to meaningful use is the responsibility of HR and benefits professionals, of course, and complete and accurate data helps make a case to top management for building and maintaining solid wellness programs, and demonstrates where programs are succeeding and where they're lacking.

HR and benefits folks at Amex use a data-driven approach to make their case to leadership, tailored for locations with more than 2,000 employees, each one receiving an annual, standard report from the University of Michigan. Burton and benefits leaders meet with leaders from each location to develop an action plan based on the findings from these individual reports.

With a wide range of employees from various ethnic backgrounds, the company has begun to study personal ethnicity and health-risk data as well, in an effort to identify opportunities for change in behaviors and programs.

The organization is also looking at the connection between employee health and customer-service ratings, says Riedel. "In a customer-service-oriented industry, customer satisfaction is the bedrock of corporate success."

Specifically, American Express has been tracking the wellness of its call-center employees -- absences, disability, health-related performance and productivity -- and has found a strong association between employees' overall health and the company's customer-satisfaction scores.

"The correlation is clearly there. And the strong [link] between personal health and high customer ratings helps to guarantee senior-level advocacy for wellness programs," says Riedel. "On the whole, the more satisfied [customers are], the more likely they are to stay on as ongoing [ones]. Leadership knows the importance of customer satisfaction vis-  -vis their call-center people, and they see how [better employee health] translates to business outcomes, [which, in turn], makes it easier to get resources and assets [approved]."

Using an expanded metrics approach also helps benefits professionals pinpoint the incentives that drive different segments of the workforce to participate in wellness programs, and tailor value-based design benefits accordingly.

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"It's remarkable," Riedel says. "When you create the right incentives, the level of participation can get up into much higher percentile ranges."

O'Neal Industries offers employees the option to choose a consumer-directed health plan with a health-savings account or a preferred-provider organization. "What they're finding is employees in the high-deductible plan appear to be taking a more active role [in managing their own health]," says Riedel.

"The differences are sizable," he adds, noting that 53 percent of O'Neal employees in the consumer-driven plan are participating in two or more wellness programs, compared to just 31 percent of employees opting for the PPO.

"They're using [metrics] to tease out what's going on there," he says. "They want to know if the CDHP, in and of itself, is attracting employees already motivated to participate. And if that's the case, then the question becomes how to expand that attitude to the rest of the employee population."

Showing Value

Ultimately, the role of benefits managers at companies such as American Express and O'Neal Industries has "really transformed from managing benefits programs to managing the actual health status of the workforce," says Jennifer Benz, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based employee-benefits communication firm Benz Communications, and the conference's program chair.

"This comes with an overwhelming amount of data," says Benz. "This session will show how successful companies [deal with] that, and will demonstrate the results."

Indeed, the metrics in use at the companies studied by Riedel and IBI enable benefits managers to show the true value of the organization's wellness programs, at all levels, Riedel says.

"This basic set of metrics allows for reporting on factors that are most valued by various groups within the organization -- the chief financial officer, operations, front-line supervisors and employees," he says.

Barrette Outdoor Living's integrated metrics approach, for example, "helped convince senior management that an unhealthy workforce was contributing to high medical costs. This led to the development of a companywide risk-reduction program." A significant reduction in claims led to greatly reduced premium increases, which went from 30 percent down to single digits over three years.

"HR is constantly under pressure to prove value," says Benz. "Benefits leaders are no different, and this presentation will help show how health metrics can demonstrate tremendous value to the business."

The inaugural Human Resource Executive ® Health & Benefits Leadership Conference will be held April 22 through 24 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. To learn more about the conference, including sessions and exhibitors, visit


See also:

Improved Health, Improved Productivity



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