Medical insurance policies are a perennially popular benefit offering, but are best placed as part of a broader strategy of promoting staff wellbeing, explains Nick Martinuale
On the face of it, insurance policies employers provide tend to be reasonably self-explanatory, existing for specific purposes and only being called upon when needed, hopefully rarely.
With employee health, though, things are not so simple. The division between policies such as group income protection (GIP) and private medical insurance (PMI) is still there, and in theory clear, but they also form part of a broader strategy designed to prevent staff becoming sick in the first place and ensure a speedy and safe return to work when they do fall ill.
There are both altruistic and financial reasons for linking such products to a wider health strategy.
“Organisations that don’t take a holistic view of group protection and private medical provision as an integrated part of their healthcare strategy are missing an opportunity,” says Chris Evans, senior consultant at Xerox HR Services. “They aren’t fully benefiting from the dividends of a healthier workforce through improved productivity and reduced premiums.”
Both GIP and PMI providers have put a stronger emphasis on early diagnosis in recent years, working on the basis that this will enable more effective treatment before conditions become more serious.
“Early notification of absence is crucial, so that employers and providers can work together to manage the risk of absence or ill health before it becomes a real and long-term issue,” says MartinuNoone, managing director, Legal & General Workplace Health and Protection.
“Using triage facilities and having a consistent, transparent process is also very important, as is a clear and agreed action plan across each of an employer’s different business areas, divisions or sites.”
Some providers are also offering specific policies around particular conditions, aimed at those populations who would generally not be offered PMI. “Lower-cost alternatives are available for employers who cannot afford to provide their entire workforce with the kind of comprehensive cover commonly given to senior managers and their families.
“These include cover that focuses on diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions and psychological problems, especially stress, anxiety and depression,” says Nick Jeal, head of corporate marketing for AXA PPP healthcare.
VitalityHealth, meanwhile, has long offered incentives to employees to become healthier, including reduced gym membership rates.
Employers, though, cannot rely solely on providers to make the link between insurance and wellness.
Nancy Ames, HR director at Unum, says employers need to create an open culture where staff feel able to talk about any physical or mental issues they are facing. “There are also a number of benefits that can boost support with prevention and early intervention, including employee assistance programmes, physiotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and early intervention services, many of which will come as part and parcel of an income protection policy,” she points out.
“The same is true of vocational rehabilitation services to help an employee back to work after a long period of absence.”
Ultimately, employers should have strategies that span illness prevention right the way through to providing a support care framework, suggests Matthew Lawrence, head of broking and proposition for health and risk at Aon Employee Benefits.
“The preventative pillar could include things like access to screening, use of a health platform or app, access to financial education or resilience coaching,” he says. “If the employer moves from the preventative stage into the ‘need care’ or ‘support care’ stages, then other products and services, such as day-one absence recording, virtual GP, case management, PMI or counselling services, could come into play.”
GOOD DATA USE
GIP and PMI policies can also help to shape this by providing insight into particular issues individual employers may face, he adds.
“Employers should be looking to use all relevant data sets, whether this is claims data related to insurance policies like group income protection, PMI or critical illness, or from occupational health or absence or EAP data,” he says.
“By aggregating all of this information, the employer will be able to get a good insight about what is happening in their organisation and can make some informed decisions about how best to progress.”
In reality, such attempts are often thwarted due to a lack of joined-up thinking and relationships between risk, which tends to have claims information, and HR, says Andrew Woolnough, value proposition director at Willis Towers Watson, and this extends beyond GIP and PMI.
“They don’t tend to talk,” he says. “For instance, HR tends not to be aware of any employer’s liability claims, but if they were they may be able to start dovetailing what healthcare they have with what risk they have. Conversely, if the employer’s liability insurer knew there was some medical or risk insurance, or even an EAP or the government’s Fit for Work Service, in place, which could help the employee get back to work, then they could make their healthcare strategy work more effectively.”
The issue is compounded, he says, by the fact that the entire insurance industry – including providers and intermediaries – tends to operate in silos.
“Companies look at employee wellbeing as an orchestra of soloists; it just doesn’t come together,” he says.
Yet there are some signs that the industry may be starting to share information more. Noone, for instance, says L&G works closely with PMI, EAP and occupational health providers to help manage conditions and prevent them from turning into longer-term issues.
VitalityHealth, too, works with health screening company Bluecrest Wellness to enable employers to run on-site screenings that can not only identify particular conditions but also spot any trends through the use of anonymised management information.
“It means screenings are no longer regarded as just an executive perk but part of an overall strategy for improving health in the workplace,” says Peter Blencowe, managing director at Bluecrest Wellness.
There certainly is a strong business case for those employers that can successfully incorporate insurance schemes into wider wellness programmes, and vice versa.
“If employers can understand what their risks are and put in place strategies to manage those, both now and in the future,” says Lawrence, “then it should ultimately translate through into financial returns as a result of reduced absence-related costs, better claims experience and, ultimately, sustainable pricing.”