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Amid continuing rise in health care costs, employers set focus on clinical conditions and integrated wellbeing

New wellbeing strategies seek to improve upon previous failed efforts


September 27, 2018

On average, employers expect health care cost increases of 5.0% in 2018 compared with 4.7% in 2018.

ARLINGTON, VA, September 27, 2018 — As employers look ahead at rising costs, the vast majority agree that they are likely to sponsor health care benefits in the near term: 94% of employers are very confident that their organizations will continue to sponsor health care benefits in the next five years.

When seeking to manage rising health care costs, the top priorities for employers are zeroed in on clinical conditions (85%) and investing in employee wellbeing (82%) over the next three years — two strategies to contain health care expenses longer term and ultimately improve workforce performance. Employers report that little progress has been made in these areas in the past three years. Fewer than one-third (30%) say they have made advancements in clinical conditions, and only 41% say the same for employee wellbeing.

“Although we have seen changes in health care legislation and consolidation across the industry, one thing is clear: Employer-sponsored health care is not changing any time soon,” said Julie Stone, managing director of specialty practices and intellectual capital at Willis Towers Watson. “Employers remain dedicated to engaging employees and their family members across the continuum of health care needs — from improving their wellbeing through preventive care, to helping them manage complex illnesses.”

Get innovative with your clinical conditions

By focusing on some of the most widespread chronic diseases that require ongoing treatment, employers can get to the root of a top benefit cost: how to encourage their workforce to take early preventive measures to remain healthy and safely manage care related to ongoing chronic illnesses.

As older workers are more likely to put off retirement, two-thirds of employers (65%) ranked metabolic syndrome and diabetes as the number one clinical focus area over the next three years — a condition that shows up at higher rates in older populations. Musculoskeletal (59%) ranked second, a top diagnostic category for most companies due to the conditions often being connected to other health issues and treatment costs varying widely. And, with stress as a top workforce risk, mental/behavioral health (57%) was the third most prioritized condition by employers.

As employers look for innovative ways to help their employees manage these conditions, many are turning to Silicon Valley. In fact, 43% of employers say they are watching emerging companies that leverage the Internet of Things — from digitized glucometers to remote physical therapy monitoring — to revolutionize the management of chronic conditions.

“Employers recognize that the creativity that often leads to market disruption is being driven by early-stage start-ups. That’s why many companies have their eye on tech-enabled solutions and are piloting programs to improve population health and wellbeing,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, Health Management practice co-leader at Willis Towers Watson.

Expand your total view of wellbeing and make an impact through a clinical lens

Although wellbeing programs have been a priority for many years, employers recognize that their current policies and initiatives are falling short of expectations. Employees are not actively engaged in their wellbeing initiatives, as less than half of employers (47%) say their population participates in their wellbeing initiatives. And, even though chronic illness is cited as employers’ number one priority over the next three years, only 19% say their current wellbeing policy is effective at reducing the impact of chronic diseases on employees and providing the support needed, which often extends to other areas of wellbeing — financial, emotional and social — during critical illness.

“Employers must rethink their wellbeing initiatives to ensure they yield meaningful results,” said Cara McNulty, Willis Towers Watson’s North America wellbeing leader. “To see success, employers agree that a valuable wellbeing initiative should be connected to employee experience (72%) and promote a healthy culture (67%). Starting with a clinical approach that’s integrated across all wellbeing dimensions — physical, financial, emotional and social — will ensure a significant impact on employee health.”

In fact, eight-in-10 employers are currently sponsoring or considering sponsoring programs by 2020 that target specific clinical conditions or high-cost cases — such as maternity, diabetes, depression and metabolic syndrome — to improve employees’ physical wellbeing. Nearly half of these employers (48%) have already put these initiatives in place.

Employers are also prioritizing their employees’ emotional wellbeing through mental and behavioral health investments. Thirty-nine percent of employers offer initiatives to support chronic behavioral health conditions, and 26% are considering these initiatives for 2020.

About the survey

The 23rd annual Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey was completed by 687 U.S. employers between June and July 2018 and reflects respondents’ 2018 health program decisions and strategies. Respondents collectively employ 11.4 million employees and operate in all major industry sectors. Results provided are based on 554 employers with at least 1,000 employees.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has over 40,000 employees serving more than 140 countries. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential.


*Cost increases for 2018 and 2019 are after-plan changes; increases without plan changes are 5.3% for 2018 and 5.5% for 2019. This marks the 13th year in a row that employers report that they have reduced plan value to control premium and total costs. Cost trends are based on projected medical and drug claims for active employees, including both employer and employee contributions but excluding employee out-of-pocket costs.

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