Survey: More is more for employers trying strategies to manage benefit cost growth 

A new survey dives into the state of employer-sponsored health plans. (Valeriya/Getty)

Employers that are most effectively controlling healthcare cost growth are throwing as many strategies as they can into the mix, according to a new report. 

Mercer Health and Benefits released further data from its annual survey of the employer-sponsored insurance market, and the group identified 27 best practices that employers were using to keep costs low.

These include adjusting networks to ensure employees were seeing high-quality providers, promoting wellness and an internal “culture of health,” tailoring benefits to employee demographics, taking advantage of technology like telehealth and embracing value-based models. 

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Employers trying many ways to enhance benefits indicates they’re trying to make their health plans as tailored and individualized as possible—and that’s where the financial payoff is, according to the report. For employers trying fewer than five of these tactics, benefit costs increased by 5% in 2018. However, for employers trying 14 or more different tactics to keep costs down, benefit costs went up by 3.2%. 

“What the study seems to show is that you need to do some of everything,” Beth Umland, director of research for health and benefits at Mercer, told FierceHealthcare. “Employers do have the power to manage healthcare cost growth.” 

RELATED: Per-employee healthcare costs are expected to increase 4.1% in 2019, survey says 

The survey includes responses from 2,500 employers with at least 500 employees. Wellness is a particular focus for employers, according to the survey. In 2018, 39% of those surveyed said that providing a healthy workplace is an element of their company missions, marking a significant boost from 23% of employers the year before. 

Umland said employers are taking to wellness initiatives even as the data doesn’t quite exist yet to back up the value of such programs. Though the jury may still be out on the effectiveness of these programs, Umland said employers believe there are benefits, explaining the growing focus. 

“That’s a fairly big commitment,” Umland said. “Once you put that in your company mission statement, you’ve got to act on it.” 

In addition, Mercer’s survey found that employers haven’t totally bailed on offering “consumer-driven” health plans—generally those with high deductibles and an accompanying health savings account—but they’re not becoming the default. 

RELATED: High-deductible plans fall from grace in employer-based coverage 

Instead, they’re aiming for a balance between plans with lower deductibles and higher premiums for employees that need them, and high-deductible plans or other plans with greater cost-sharing for those who prefer them. Growth in PPO deductibles plateaued in this year’s survey, Umland said. 

“You do reach a point in cost-shifting where you have to start worrying about, even for employees in a good health plan, whether coverage is truly affordable if they need to use it,” Umland said. 

Mercer's full survey will be released later this spring.

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