Employers Play Key Role in Educating Workers on Health Plan Choices

By Charlotte Huff

Aug. 1, 2012

While most corporate leaders aren’t psychologists, they can implement strategies to discourage employees from skimping on vital health care, researchers say, particularly those in high-deductible health plans.

Constant education is crucial, so employees had better grasp a health care plan’s high-deductible design, says Dr. Alison Galbraith, an assistant professor at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, who has studied such plans. She cites one study, published in 2009 in the journal Health Affairs, which found that only 52 percent of 682 high-deductible plan participants even knew about the deductible.

Of those, one-third could name the deductible amount and just 5 percent knew which broad categories of treatment, such as physician visits or medical tests, were excluded. Most important, Galbraith says, “people who were confused about what was covered [outside of the deductible] were more likely to cut back on care.”

Sharing basic price information online, such as through the insurance provider’s site, also might persuade some on-the-fence employees to get a medical problem checked out, says Jeffrey Ingalls, an insurance broker and co-author of Stop Buying Health Plans and Start Buying Health Insurance!

“I think a lot of those scenarios where people blow off things are based on assumption [regarding costs] versus fact,” Ingalls says.

Getting precise cost data is difficult, but even ballpark numbers showing the typical range of a doctor’s visit, an X-ray and other basic services might be beneficial, he says.

Amelia Haviland, a Carnegie Mellon University associate professor and high-deductible plan researcher, offers other tactics:

    • Provide alternatives to the traditional doctor visit.
    • Establish a free or low-cost nurse hot line for employees and family members.
    • Encourage enrollees to ask if their doctor will answer basic medical questions via e-mail at a reduced rate.

Don’t just deposit a lump sum into a health reimbursement or health savings account, Haviland advises employers. Instead, provide examples of what sorts of medical issues that money is designed to cover. “Say, ‘This covers when your kid seems like they are out of breath for three months and you need to go check them for asthma. This covers when you have some kind of weird throat-catch thing that doesn’t go away.’ “

Take any step to reiterate that employees and their loved ones shouldn’t be making health decisions solo no matter how daunting the out-of-pocket deductible, Haviland says. “That’s the message that people tend to get: ‘Don’t go to your doctor—just decide on your own.’ “

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Comment below or email

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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