Employee Benefits Future Strategy 2006 – Sponsor’s comment: Strategic healthcare delivers

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It is a sad fact that the words ‘healthcare’ and ‘innovation’ are not, and have probably never been, synonymous. But the next 12 months will see some major developments in the low cost healthcare arena as providers aim to plug the UK’s considerable ‘healthcare gap’.

Around 52 million individuals in the UK do not have any form of healthcare insurance cover, according to figures based on Laing’s Healthcare market review, which stated just 12.5% of the UK population had some form of healthcare insurance cover at the end of 2004. To some, who believe that the NHS is improving, this may not seem like a big issue. But it is worth bearing in mind that the NHS will not provide cover for everyday healthcare items such as eye tests and complementary therapies. Neither will it fund other services that might help a company meet duty of care responsibilities, such as a confidential helpline and face-to-face counselling.

These are points that small companies might be well advised to consider as they try to meet best practice guidelines set out in UK and EU legislation and also manage sickness absence.

They may never have provided healthcare benefits to staff in the past due to a combination of a lack of incentive (primarily with regards to tax) and a general lack of available funds. The same assumption could also easily apply to larger organisations that have traditionally provided medical cover to senior management only.

It would be naïve to assume that such organisations can suddenly afford to provide a whole raft of healthcare benefits to all employees. However, it is worth noting that some providers are now moving towards low cost modular healthcare solutions, which aim to open up a whole new market.

For some organisations, accessing the new breed of modular healthcare products may simply involve making their existing spend work harder so that it covers the cost of additional services.

Low cost modular healthcare solutions will not only allow employers to put together a package of benefits to suit their individual needs (thereby stripping out the unnecessary cost of superfluous benefits associated with some ‘off the shelf’ products) but part of the premium may also attract tax benefits.

Considering the government seems to be encouraging employers to take a greater responsibility for employees’ health, it would make sense for all organisations to look at areas where improvements could be made in 2006 and, if applicable, examine the value they are getting from existing benefit packages.

The government has acknowledged that in order to meet its goal of improving inequalities in employment and health, as stated in its public health White Paper Choosing health: making healthy choices easier (published in November 2004) it needs to work in conjunction with employers and trade unions.

For those in employment, work is a key part of life. It therefore makes sense that the work environment should be a source of better health – employers are perfectly positioned to provide healthcare support – from managing the risks of stress to helping sick staff off work to make a return.

Meanwhile, the government’s proposed changes to the future management of sickness absence certification, which might see the responsibility for issuing sickness certificates taken away from the GP, have been welcomed as the present UK system can be open to serious abuse.

The doctors’ union – the British Medical Association – is currently running pilot schemes, which might lead to company doctors and occupational health professionals becoming the first port of call for sick employees.

Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that products and services that help manage, and hopefully ultimately reduce, incidences of sickness absence – such as Employee Assistance Programmes, occupational health and health screening – work best together as part of a comprehensive human resources programme. Sickness absence solutions promote an early return to health and work, with staff benefiting from access to healthcare and occupational health professionals as well as a wealth of rehabilitation resources to help speed up recovery.