Benefits Pros Getting Game Faces On in Preparation for 2014

As attendees gathered into the general session room for the opening keynote at the Human Resource Executive Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, the energy in the room felt much different — more charged, more urgent, more focused — than any other that I’ve been in over the last few years.

Even before keynote speaker Dr. Ron Leopold started his remarks, people were in their chairs early, ready to go—pens and notepads out, smartphones charged. I assumed they were just anxious to hear Leopold answer the question he’d posed in his session title (which he even admitted was selected to get tongues wagging), “Are benefits forever?”

However, as the session progressed, I realized attendees weren’t seeking paydirt on Leopold’s query and they weren’t looking to sit in a drum circle for a “PPACA therapy session,” as one pro in the room tweeted.

Rather, as the clock ticks down to mere months before practitioners face the full force of health care reform the attendees this morning wanted solutions. They wanted strategies. And by the looks on their faces, they weren’t leaving until they got them.

I had a lightbulb moment. I realized that employers are no longer panicked about PPACA. They are purposeful.

Following the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the health care reform law and the re-election of President Obama, us benefits communicators have been waiting for that shift from employers for a while now. We’ve been waiting patiently—some of us more so than others—for you to turn flimsy ideas into firm plans. Mostly so that we could stop writing stories about how you’re all in “wait and see mode,” and start writing about strategies about how to work now that you’re in “decide and do” mode. That makes our jobs waaaay more exciting, and also more meaningful.

As Leopold noted, “Most employers—according to most survey and research data—have decided to ‘play’ [under PPACA’s employers mandate], but it’s a different playing field.” From my vantage point, what brought practitioners here to Las Vegas for HBLC is much more than to spend three days in 90-degree weather (although it’s a nice bonus). They’re here this week because they understand, as Leopold said, “The answer to PPACA isn’t in the health plan alone, [and] even if employers get out of the health care business, they’ll never get out of the productivity business.”

So, to succeed on that new playing field, employers know they need some new plays. For example, I ate lunch with a woman today who is at HBLC seeking new ideas for her organization’s wellness program. I asked her about the current offering, and it sounded like a rousing success—in five years, the plan has garnered more than 50 percent participation using a well-structured blend of incentives and challenges to keep employees engaged. It also features employee health fairs where employees and their families can receive biometric screenings, so employees’ engagement via the fun stuff still can lead to actionable health conversations with their physicians. Further, it’s a collegiate environment, so she and her team leverage the school’s kinesiology students to serve as personal trainers for employees.

I know employers that would love to have resources and participation levels like that, I told her. What exactly was she looking to change?

The impact of PPACA has the organization considering self-funding, she said. So, instead of just wellness carrots, “it may be time to bring in sticks, too.”

Like Leopold said, employers are playing, but on a whole different playing field. I, for one, am encouraged that here at HBLC, HR/benefits pros understand that and are prepping new and improved benefits playbooks for game time come January.

Kelley M. Butler is the Editorial Director at Benz Communications, a consulting firm specializing in benefits communications. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of Employee Benefit News, Kelley has been covering news and trends in human resources and employee benefits for more than 12 years. Follow her updates from HBLC on twitter at @kelleytheeditor.

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