Wellness is tough and more than 30% of advisers aren't playing here

Wellness programs are a difficult task for benefit advisers. When working with large employers, clients are more demanding than ever for the most innovative and tailored approach possible. When working with small employers, there’s still the matter of convincing the client it’s worth the price. But when getting down to it and deciding which wellness plan to offer clients, advisers say the most important features are easy-to-use educational tools for employees, return-on-investment and overall program cost, according to findings from EBA’s first wellness survey.

The survey also found that working with a client to implement a wellness program is tough, with the biggest challenges being an overall wellness culture transformation, developing employee wellness engagement programs and ROI. This might be one of the reasons nearly 32% of survey respondents, don’t offer programs to their clients at all.

EBA heard from nearly 150 readers on the topic of wellness — two thirds of those surveyed are brokers, 19% identified as consultants and 14% said they have another role in the industry including third-party administrator or carrier representative.

EBA also asked advisers what vendors they work with. Given a list of companies compiled by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, the five most popular vendors EBA respondents use, in alphabetical order, are Cigna Behavioral Health, HumanaVitality, Interactive Health Solutions, OptumHealth Care Solutions and WebMD Health Services.

Most important features

The wellness survey asked what attributes make up a good wellness vendor’s plan. Survey respondents say the most important factor to their clients is an easy-to-use educational tool. Yet, more than half (54%) of those polled called it “somewhat” or “very” challenging to implement. Jamie Debenham, vice president of employee benefits at Brooker Insurance Agency in Strongsville, Ohio, agrees this is difficult. “Maybe because [the vendors and employers] try and bite off more of the apple all at once,” he says. “They try to educate around everything. In my perspective, a wellness program should be a work in progress and add programs over the years so you don’t overwhelm the employees.”

There’s a clear opportunity for advisers to counsel clients with the reasoning Debenham suggests, or work closely when selecting a vendor in the first place to mitigate the difficulty of educational programs, given the level of importance.

The second most important component of a wellness program, ROI, is one of the most challenging to implement with 76% of respondents saying it’s “somewhat” or “very” difficult or challenging. In fact, 41% alone called it “very” difficult.

The frustration is also evident when the survey asked readers to discuss any open-ended issue related to wellness. “My clients see the value, offer incentives, but I can’t see where they are feeling any ROI,” one respondent wrote. “Just the right thing to do. With health care costs rising so quickly, but ROI is difficult to measure in terms of dollars.”

Independent wellness consultant Bart Sheeler, who previously worked for wellness vendor Nurtur, defines ROI as “the end result of a successful program.” The simple version in determining that result is to make employees aware of their health and well-being status and then you’ll see improvement, according to Sheeler, adding that savings will come, but in time and only if the program is robust. “More important is to understand the culture of the company’s employees. What motivates them — is it incentives, team challenges, recognition?” he explains. “Find the right message that resonates with the employees.”

Overall wellness program budget and cost was the third most important component to benefit advisers. While likely a concern to all employers, smaller ones are more frugal, according to Tom Schuetz of Group Services Inc. in Davenport, Iowa.

He says it falls on the broker to show them where wellness can affordably fit in. “They think of it as an extra expense,” he says. “Part of our responsibility is to look at their full benefits spend and rethink how to implement wellness, like redirect funds from somewhere else.” They can come from a contribution change, modification to a consumer-driven health plan or conversion of some employer-sponsored benefits into voluntary benefits, he says as a few examples.

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