As the unemployment rate continues to fall, health benefits are again becoming a key differentiator to help companies become employers of choice. Staying abreast of the trends will help decision-makers in their quest to provide valued health benefits while keeping costs under control.

Here’s a look at seven trends to track in 2017 and beyond:

  • Prevalence of high-deductible health plans. In 2016, 29 percent of workers had health plans with high deductibles, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, up from just four percent 10 years ago. This puts more financial responsibility on employees, which is triggering heightened sensitivity to cost and waste in the system.
  • Continued attention to pharmacy benefits. Drug prices are a key factor in driving up health care costs. Why? Pharmaceutical companies have implemented major price increases on existing drugs, and the Pew Charitable Trust reports that 700 new, costly specialty medications are under development, a fact that could triple Rx spending by 2020.
  • Growing engagement. As employees have more “skin in the game” with high-deductible health plans, they are more willing to become engaged in their health care choices. Expect an increased emphasis on getting the right care (but not unnecessary care) for the right price. Tools for making informed decisions and providing better cost transparency will be in the spotlight.
  • Emphasis on value versus volume. Providers’ old fee-for-service model is becoming obsolete as accountable care systems and value-based care initiatives are changing the old health care delivery paradigms. There’s an increased focus on prevention, patient-centered medical homes, outcomes and innovative provider payment models.
  • Amped up technology. Technology – from smart phones to the internet of things – is ubiquitous, a trend that’s being leveraged to deliver health care in new ways, track symptoms, diagnose ailments and even help seniors live longer in their own homes. Technology is also being used behind-the-scenes to improve communication and coordination of care among doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
  • Ongoing emphasis on wellness. There’s a shift away from financial incentives in wellness programs in favor of strategies that encourage lifestyle changes. What’s working? Employee wellness competitions, certified wellness coaches and nutrition programs designed to tackle issues like obesity, which is linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer. Wearable fitness trackers, like FitBits, continue to be popular, and they can be a good way to spark friendly competition between employees.
  • New care delivery models. Many patients are trading traditional doctor visits for retail health clinics or telemedicine, which is built on a model of video chats between patients and doctors. The long-term impact of these lower-cost approaches is still uncertain, but they’re already changing the way new doctors are being trained.

Although there could be seismic shifts in health care policy under a new U.S. president, it appears these health care trends are here to stay.

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