Thursday, January 28, 2010

Health savings accounts are growing and health care reform probably won’t change that.

I recently read a study by Aon Consulting that shows once again how quickly the health savings accounts (HSA)-high-deductible model is growing as an alternative to traditional health plans. I’ve blogged about HSAs before, but as a reminder, an HSA enables employees to pay directly for their share of health care costs such deductibles, co-pays or other medial costs with pretax dollars, but can only be used in conjunction with a high-deductible plan. HSAs have only been around since 2004, when a federal law first allowed consumers to open HSA accounts.

Aon studied all consumer-directed health (CDH) plans. CDH plans allow routine claims to be paid from a consumer-controlled account, giving consumers greater control over their health budgets. Having payment responsibility encourages consumers to better understand the actual cost of their health care.

The Aon survey reveals that for the first time since health savings accounts (HSA) were made available in 2004, they have become the choice of more than half of the employers offering consumer-driven health (CDH) plans. Aon found that in 2009, 56 percent of all employers offering CDH plans paired them with HSAs, compared to a little less than 50 percent in the prior three years.

By contrast, only 35 percent of the employers opted for health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2009, down from 44 percent three years ago. An HRA allows an employer to pay employees’ medical expenses with pretax dollars, however the employee does not have control over the account. Like HSAs, employers can only offer HRAs in conjunction with high deductible health insurance policies.

According to the Aon study, 44 percent of those surveyed currently offer CDH plans, up from 28 percent three years ago. These plan designs can be attractive to employers, especially for small businesses, because of lower insurance premiums.

I expect more employers will begin offering HSA plans as individuals become better health care consumers and play a more active role in how their health care is delivered and paid.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Have you improved your health or the health of others? A Villanova Wildcat fan? Tell us your story!

Some Villanova Wildcat basketball fans are going to score big when they make a fast break to a healthier lifestyle or assist others in doing so.

UnitedHealthcare and Villanova University have teamed up to recognize people who have improved their health or the health of others in their family, community or work place. An "All-Star of the Game" will be selected based on submissions throughout the 2010 Villanova Wildcat basketball season.

UnitedHealthcare encourages "All-Stars" to submit their stories of improving their own health or the health of those around them. The Jay Wright radio show will announce the winners, each of whom will receive a $100 gift card to The University Shop and have a chance to win the grand prize of a $200 gift card to The University Shop, a basketball autographed by Jay Wright, and four tickets to the West Virginia-Villanova game on March 6, 2010.

Our All-Star program is an opportunity to put a spotlight on some of the great things people are doing to improve their health and the health of others in the community. This program really gets to the heart of everything that is important in health care today and is a visual demonstration of UnitedHealthcare’s commitment to help people live healthier lives.
Submit stories and get more details about UnitedHealthcare’s All-Star of the Game program at:

Are you ready to commit to a wellness program? Take the test and find out.

One of the most important trends in employer-sponsored health insurance over the past few years is the growth of wellness programs. In fact, a number of recent surveys show that from 75% to 86% of all employers now offer wellness programs to help employees improve their health and lower future health care costs.

But offering programs and getting employees to use them are two different kettle of fish: A 2008 study by HR consultant Hewitt Associates found that few employees sign up for wellness programs.
     • A mere 4% of smokers took part in employer-sponsored smoking-cessation programs.
     • Only 5% of overweight employees signed up for weight-reduction programs.
     • Just 10% of employees with chronic ailments such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease took part in programs that address these problems.

There are many theories for why more people don’t sign up for wellness programs and experts have made many recommendations for pumping up that number.

But in my opinion these theories have very little to do the average person facing the very hard challenge of quitting cigarettes, losing weight or dealing with a chronic disease.

The simple truth is that if you’re not ready for a wellness program, it’s not going to work for you. Deciding to enroll in a wellness program is like anything else that represents a major life change. It’s tough to do. It’s tough to change your daily patterns, tough to get into a new routine, tough even to get yourself up for every session of the class.

So how do you know if you’re ready or not? Here’s a simple quiz we put together that will assess your readiness for a wellness program.

1. Do you have an illness or health issue for which you want to seek treatment or help?
Knowing you have an illness or health issue and resolving to do something about it is the first step in preparing for a wellness program.

2. Have you completed a health assessment?
Many companies and health plans that have wellness programs offer health assessments that typically can be done online or over the phone. The health assessment identifies any health issues that may require medical attention or a change in lifestyle. According to National Compensation Survey data, 55 percent of employees who take health assessments end up enrolling in wellness programs.

3. Have you tried to address your health issue by yourself and failed?
Many people who successfully lose weight, quit smoking or get their diabetes under control first had to endure a series of failed efforts on their own before considering getting help to tackle their health issue.

4. Is your health issue having a negative impact on your life?
It’s hard to change habits such as poor nutrition or smoking. But people often find the motivation to change when it’s taking a toll on their health and preventing them from doing the things they love to do.

5. Does your employer give you incentives for completing the program?
Positive feedback in the form of cash and other incentives can be a great motivator. For example, UnitedHealthcare offers employers a program called “Simply Engaged” that gives employees $75 for completing a health assessment, $25 for completing an online coaching program, and an additional $75 for completing a telephonic coaching program.

6. Does your company offer the program you need?
Don’t be surprised if they do. The programs that are most popular reflect the most pressing health challenges we face as a nation such as obesity, nutrition, smoking, diabetes, heart disease, and women’s health issues. A quick check with your human resources department or your company’s health benefits online tools can help you find the program that’s best for you.

Now you’ve taken the quiz and it’s time to score it. The more “yes” answers you gave, the more ready you are. If you answered “yes” to four or more questions, sign up right now!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Most women incorrectly think it’s safe to deliver a baby before 39 weeks.

A couple of times I’ve blogged about the need to cut down on elective C-sections performed before women reach the full term of 39 weeks. It’s a risky procedure that ends up putting far too many newborns in neonatal intensive care units (NICU).

I have always wondered why women allow themselves to undergo a procedure that’s so risky for their newborn instead of waiting until full term.

A new survey answers the question. The survey reveals that most women don’t know delivering a baby before the full term of 39 weeks puts the newborn at greater risk than waiting until full term.

The study, by UnitedHealthcare and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine, found that 92.4 percent of the women surveyed believe that it is safe to deliver before 39 weeks despite the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommendation that scheduled deliveries should occur only after 39 weeks of gestation.

The study of 650 insured first-time mothers also found that 51.7 percent of respondents believe it is safe to deliver before 37 weeks of gestation, while73 percent believe that it is safe to deliver before 38 weeks. Shockingly, 24 percent believe full term is reached before 37 weeks of gestation.

Tina Groat, a physician who is the national medical director of Women’s Health for UnitedHealthcare, said it best: “The results of this study are quite compelling and underscores the importance of proactively educating female patients on the dangers associated with elective deliveries prior to 39 weeks.”

Research shows that babies born between 34-36 weeks are not only more likely to die than full term infants; if they survive they are more likely to develop cerebral palsy and have developmental delays than babies born full term. Also, a growing body of recent research reveals that newborns delivered prior to 39 weeks are up to two-times more likely to end up in NICU than babies born at 39 weeks, and are at increased risk for complications including respiratory problems, feeding difficulties, delayed brain development, and death.

Even though ACOG cautions against elective delivery by induction or C-section before 39 weeks of gestation, the rates of early births (between 34-36 weeks of gestation) are on the rise. Currently, more than 1.3 million C-sections are performed annually in the United States, often at an increased risk to newborns, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

A nationwide study published in the January 2009 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine found that 35.8 percent of elective C-section deliveries were performed before 39 weeks of gestation, while a recent review of UnitedHealthcare data for mothers and their newborns showed that 48 percent of newborns admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit were from scheduled admissions for delivery – many before 39 weeks gestation.

The objective of the new UnitedHealthcare attitudinal study was to determine women’s understanding of the definition of full term pregnancy, the gestational age at which it is safe to deliver an otherwise healthy pregnancy, and in turn, investigate consumer knowledge and attitudes related to C-sections and induced deliveries. The study, which used data from a survey commissioned by UnitedHealthcare, is part of an 18-month analysis by UnitedHealthcare of elective deliveries and the associated neonatal complications for babies delivered by early scheduled C-sections.

Based on the data of this study, UnitedHealthcare will begin to focus on engaging and empowering women through education and other resources to ensure that women understand the implications of the timing of delivery. Patient-focused initiatives will round out our effort to implement a holistic approach, both provider- and consumer-driven, to reduce neonatal risk. Over the past year or so, we have focused efforts on educating providers, including physicians and hospitals regarding the risks associated with these scheduled procedures.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

MLK Day health and wellness fair empowers people to take an active role in their health

For 15 years, the Martin Luther King Day of Service in the Philadelphia area has honored Dr. King by encouraging others to help make positive changes in the community. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some 70,000 volunteers were taking part in about 1,000 projects in the region during this past Monday’s MLK Day celebration. About 3,000 volunteers alone were at various activities at what was the epicenter of this year’s celebration, Girard College, where Dr. King once gave a speech to civil rights marchers.

UnitedHealthcare and AmeriChoice, another UnitedHealth Group company, were proud to be at Girard College this past Monday sponsoring one of the largest of the projects celebrating King Day, a health and wellness fair that focused on showing how much fun adopting a healthy lifestyle can be.

More than 35 health organizations in total offered exhibits and health screenings at the fair, including dental, vision, and health screenings, cooking demonstrations, a blood drive and a fitness workshop. Information was available on a variety of topics including Sickle Cell Disease, healthy bones, and organ donation.

Besides sponsoring the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service Health and Wellness Fair, AmeriChoice and UnitedHealthcare provided:
• Healthy activities such as line dancing and music to help encourage people to adopt an active lifestyle.
• Children’s Activities such as a carnival and organized physical fitness activities.
• “Rapping about Prevention,” a program that teaches children about nutrition and food.
• The opportunity for parents to enroll their children in CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) and learn more about free and low cost health insurance for children 19 years of age and under.

What do health and wellness have to do with Dr. King, you might ask? The answer: Quite a bit. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday offers an opportunity to remind all Americans and especially African-Americans that health and wellness are a critical part of social and economic justice. Through line dancing, music, rapping and other fun activities, UnitedHealthcare’s Health and Wellness Fair encouraged people to take an active role in their health. AmeriChoice and UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania’s will continue to remind the Pennsylvania community to adopt a healthy lifestyle through its year long program, "Moving to a Healthier Lifestyle. I’ll share some of the good ideas from this program with you in a future blog. Together, we can be healthier!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Self-insurance can cut company costs

Another way that larger employers can cut health insurance costs is by establishing a self-insured plan.
With a traditional health insurance plan, a company pays monthly premiums to the insurance carrier and the carrier pays for treatment costs and medical claims. If the claim costs exceed the premium amounts collected from the employer, the carrier pays the difference.

More and more employers are reducing their health insurance costs by turning to self-insured plans. Under a self-insured arrangement, the employer incurs the expenses for treatment costs and medical claims. The employer pays a specific amount to the insurance carrier to act as the claims administrator, process the employees’ claims and manage the benefit plans.
By not asking someone else to assume the health insurance risk, a self-insured plan typically lowers the overall program costs.

Self-insured plans typically work best for larger organizations, because the larger employee population enables the employer and insurance carrier to more accurately predict the expected claim costs. A large organization can also make the most use of the cash flow advantages created through self insurance.

To self insure, employers should find a health insurance carrier that can provide administrative support to a wide variety of health care plans and innovations, including health savings accounts, health reimbursement accounts, out-of-network options, preventive care and wellness programs. The carrier should also be able to provide fast and accurate claims processing, courteous service, periodic claim activity reviews and coordination of benefits when a spouse or significant other has other health insurance coverage.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Some ways to cut the cost of prescription drugs

One of the factors contributing to healthcare inflation is the cost of prescription drugs. But employers can help lower the cost of their prescription drug plan by making sure that it allows employees to try some simple cost-cutting measures:
• Use of generics: Employees should be encouraged to ask their physicians to prescribe generic drugs when they are available and appropriate. With generic drugs, employees can get many of the prescriptions they need at the same level of quality, strength and purity as their brand-name counterparts at 30-60 percent less in price than the equivalent brand name product.
• Pill splitting: Under the guidance of a physician, pill-splitting programs can save individuals half of their copays. Pill-splitting programs, first introduced by UnitedHealthcare, allow physicians to prescribe twice the dosage and have the employee split them in half to get their regular dose, allowing the employee to pay one 30-day copay for a 60-day supply.
• Mail-order pharmacy: Ordering a 90-day supply by mail can often cut the copay cost, while saving monthly trips to the pharmacy for maintenance medications.

Even if an employer does not offer a prescription plan benefit, it can still suggest these cost-savings approaches to their employees to help them reduce the cost of their family’s health care.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Many small businesses don’t offer health insurance to employees. Here’s why they should.

A sobering statistic popped out at me from the 2009 version of the Employer Health Benefits Survey annually done by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Education and Research Trust: only 47% of businesses with 3-9 employees offer health care benefits, compared to 72% of firms with 10-24 employees, 87% of firms with 25-49 employees and 95% of firms with more than 50 employees.

Another recent survey, this one by the Association for Healthcare Research and Quality, found that the most likely small businesses to offer health insurance are those in mining and manufacturing, wholesale trade and professional services.

With or without health care reform, there are several good business reasons why all small firms should consider offering their employees health insurance as a benefit:
· Offering health insurance makes it easier to attract and retain good employees.
· If they purchase a consumer directed health care plan with a health savings account, employees and save for and pay for health expenses on a pre-tax basis.
· A healthier work force tends to be more productive and miss fewer days of work because of illness.

Most health insurance companies now offer a range of health care plans for small companies, including the innovative health savings account (HSA)-high deductible plans. A high deductible plan is typically the least expensive healthcare insurance option for a small business, while the HSA enables employees to pay for their share of health care with pretax dollars.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Know what that medical procedure is going to cost

I just found out about another super-cool web-based tool that UnitedHealthcare is offering people in our health insurance plans that can make it easier to manage health care and health care costs.

It’s called a Treatment Cost Estimator and it can analyze data on hundreds of medical services, including 116 diseases and 3,000 prescriptions to help consumers estimate the potential cost of treatment. The Treatment Cost Estimator pinpoints fees for treatments and procedures specific to individual network physicians and geographic areas. It also shows real-time calculations of what their insurance will cover, including deductible balances and potential out-of-pocket costs. The Treatment Cost Estimator is particularly useful if someone is considering several treatment options.

UnitedHealthcare is now making the Treatment Cost Estimator available to all our members, striking another blow for simplicity and transparency in health care!