On Wednesday, May 14, 2014, Northeast Business Group on Health held its 3rd Annual Health & Wellness Benefits Conference, New Era, New Directions: Rethinking the Health Benefit Value Proposition. The conference, which attracted over 250 participants from various industry segments, explored the tough decisions that employers face as they determine how they’ll offer health benefits in the future.


James H. Fowler, PhD, Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, delivered the keynote presentation, “Networking Our Way to Better Health Outcomes.” Dr. Fowler, the author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, discussed how one can use social networks and the power of friends to improve health outcomes.  According to Mr. Fowler, in order to maximize the delivery of health interventions, it is more effective to target the friends of those at risk instead of directly targeting those at risk.  Employers can leverage the social networks of their employees in order to maximize the return on health investments.

Michael J. Taylor, Senior Vice President of Aon Hewitt, delivered the next presentation that focused on benefit strategies post-reform and how employers can navigate the changing landscape of healthcare.  According to Aon Hewitt’s own survey data, by 2020, 39% of employers will pursue a “play by new rules” strategy and 35% will “play in a new field strategy.” The former will require that employers provide benefits but manage health behaviors more aggressively. The latter indicates that employers will move to an exchange strategy, but maintain a connection with employee health. Irrespective of which way they choose to go, he said “employers must, with equal focus, address the declining health of their employees and families, and exert pressure on health plans and providers to change how we direct people to—and how we pay for—health care services."

Mr. Taylor’s presentation was followed by a panel session, “Sorting It All Out: Straight Talk about Emerging Exchange Solutions,” moderated by Michael Thompson, Principal of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The panel addressed the sustainability of exchanges as a platform, employer flexibility regarding stewardship of the plan options, value propositions for private exchanges and the future evolution of exchanges. 

The luncheon keynote,  “Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge: Making Innovation Work for Employers” was moderated by Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, Medical Director, NEBGH, and featured a panel of chief executives from Teladoc, Health Dialog, McKesson and Quantum Health. The panel addressed issues like barriers to innovation, the level of innovation that employers can tolerate, and how employers can make innovation in the marketplace easier. Panelists acknowledged that employers have a lot of competing priorities and the last thing they want to do is to invest in a solution that will create more work or contribute to workplace disruption.  Employers considering new solutions may find pilot programs and risking-sharing arrangements more palatable and less risky.  

Four concurrent breakout sessions were held after the luncheon.

In the session “Strategies to Enhance the Benefits Value Equation,” Jill Berger, VP of Health and Welfare at Marriott International, described how Marriott was able to deliver high value well-being management to associates by establishing on-site health interventions and creative clinic models. George Lenko, Staff VP of Client Solutions and Strategic Marketing at Anthem BCBS/Wellpoint and Maeve O’Meara, Senior Director of Product Management at Castlight Health, presented the reference-based pricing benefit that their companies are co-branding.  Reference-based benefits can appeal to a wide a range of employers as a way to generate savings, encourage market competition, improve consumerism and amplify employee engagement. They said that many limitations of early reference-based benefit programs – narrow set of services, disruption, limited ability to shop around, and limited information on cost and quality – were addressed by providing best-in-class transparency solutions that enable savings and manage disruption.

Barbara Gniewek, Principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Scott Hudson, Vice President of Sales and Workforce Analytics at Equifax, provided tactical advice on how employers should approach in evaluating and managing their new benefits options or “how to play and when to pay."  They revealed that approximately one-third of employers are considering a private exchange in light of the Cadillac Tax and “while there is an exchange for everyone, exchanges are not for everyone.”  Making the decision to participate in private or public exchanges can be complex, but robust workforce and private exchange evaluation tools are available to assist in that process.

John Barkett, Director of Health Policy Affairs, Exchange Solutions, Towers Watson, moderated a session with Time Warner, Inc. and Guardian Life Insurance Company of America that focused on the employer experience with retiree exchanges.  During his opening remarks he described the “state of retiree exchanges.”  Barkett advised that employers looking to pursue an exchange strategy go with an experienced vendor with robust web and call center technology and strong relationships with carriers.  During the session, the employers revealed their biggest challenges to moving to an exchange, like how to manage the culture shift, help employees understand the Medicare market and help employees transition to the new benefit.  In terms of best practices, Kathleen Harris, Vice President of Benefits at Time Warner Inc., was able to streamline implementation of the exchange by having a multidisciplinary team and retiree alumni contributing to decision-making.  Similarly, Michele Levine, Vice President and Head of Corporate Benefits at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, spoke about the importance of engaging the retiree community in the transition to exchange.

Representatives from CVS Caremark, Nutrisavings, Chroma Multicultural Health Communications, and Change Healthcare participated in a session that addressed ways that employers can make wellness strategies pay off and create lasting behavioral changes in their workforce. For example, Jane Barlow, Associate CMO of CVS Caremark Corporation, commented on the importance of medical adherence in health improvement. Arnie Joseph, President of Chroma, stated that in order for employers to effectively change employee health behavior, it is critical to understand how employers became unwell in the first place.  He encouraged employers to tackle cultural barriers to engagement in health and wellness programs. 

Laurel Pickering, President & CEO, NEBGH moderated the closing general session, a panel discussion with Marriott International, News Corp, Time Warner and Reed Elsevier.  Each employer shared their thoughts about their future benefits strategy and identified consumer-driven health plans, improving employee engagement, making the most of consumer tools, working with providers and managing incentives and rewards programs as key areas of interest.

We again thank our supporters and sponsors for their commitment to promoting NEBGH as a leader for change in the local and regional health care market. We hope to see you at other NEBGH events, as well as at next year’s Annual Health and Wellness Benefits Conference.