Deeper data points revealed in health risk assessments

November 1, 2009

More data is better when it comes to health measurement and inspiration for wellness programs

The employee health risk assessment (HRA) remains a powerful tool for employers, but uncertainty over incentive guidelines and frustration over participation rates can stall even the most innovative programs. The goal of an HRA is two-fold.

HRAs provide employees with measures of their current health status and future health risks as well as actions they can take immediately to improve health. Additionally, employers can use the HRA information-aggregated and de-identified-to develop a wellness strategy.

"For example, we ask them to indicate if they are missing work because of a health condition," Taitel says. "In another series of questions, we ask them to rate and compare their performance to other employees. So simply looking at risks alone only gives part of the picture."

For example, many HRAs assess the presence of depression.

"We understand that depression plays a key role in an employer's productivity losses, as well as overall benefit costs, so we believe it is an important component to study," Taitel says.

Another feature of an effective HRA includes a link into personal health support interventions so that employees may be steered into programs that can provide assistance. Employees who require assistance may also be identified for contact by a health coach or for participation in special wellness or prevention programs.

DRIVING PARTICIPATION IN HRAS

According to "Wellness Programs, Survey & Sample Series," published in February 2009 by Brookfield, Wisc.-based International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, only about 14% of employers have indicated participation rates in HRAs above 75%, while 18% of employers indicated participation rates of 51% to 75%.

Bryce Williams, director of prevention and wellness at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA), believes that best-in-class participation begins at 80%.

"When [80%] of a population completes an HRA, the data becomes more meaningful and informative to future program strategy," Williams says.

LURING EMPLOYEES WITH CASH

"Some employers have even required employees, as a condition of participation in the healthcare program, to complete an annual health assessment," Mowery says. "Others will give discounts on premiums for those who complete a health assessment, and others will provide cash or gift certificates to the employees."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an informal opinion letter stating that requiring employees to participate in an HRA may violate provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, HIPAA had earlier outlined a recommendation that noted the incentive can't be greater than 20% of the cost of the health plan. Most employers are currently following the HIPAA guidelines.

Much discussion has taken place on how to apply incentives for completing HRAs. The company can opt to pay cash or the incentive may be tied to reduced health insurance premiums.

"The important thing to keep in mind is that incentives do not have to be costly," says Taitel.

In CIGNA's experience, its clients with the best overall HRA completion rates have offered a reduced premium or cash payment.

"Incentives play an instrumental role as a mechanism to engage individuals to participate in HRAs and in other programs designed to improve lifestyle behaviors," says Emelia DeMusis, CIGNA product manager. "Levels of participation in HRAs have been found to vary significantly depending on the type of incentive that is used to motivate participation."

While DeMusis says that optimal participation rate is obviously 100%, she believes that "even at levels below 100%, such as 20% to 40%, there can be medical savings."