Employer, Employee Perceptions of Consumerism Vary

A wide gap exists in perceptions of health care consumerism among American workers and their employers.
A recent survey from Towers Perrin finds that 82% of workers consider themselves effective health care consumers, and 59% say they learn as much as possible about costs and effects of alternative treatments. However, only 36% of employers say workers are effective health care consumers. What’s more, only 34% say workers have taken actions consistent with being effective consumers.

The human resources consulting firm polled 120 American companies in April and 1,000 workers in January.

Helping workers comprehend health care costs and consumerism is challenging for employers, Towers Perrin Principal Richard Ostuw told participants at the World At Work conference in Boston on May 24. Ostuw advises employers to demonstrate how health care consumerism can be beneficial for workers, inform workers about how health care costs impact business success, and conduct surveys and focus groups to gauge workers’ level of trust and confidence in the corporation.

“We need to appeal to [employees’] self-interest,” he said at the conference. “Think about the messages you send. Are they about the employee saving money? The employee being healthier? They don’t see health care as being in the workspace. They see it as being in the personal space. Command and control doesn’t do it.”

“A lot of employers have taken the attitude of if we build it, they will come’,” he added. “If consumerism is going to be effective, we need to get employees to be consumers.”

In fact, the survey also shows that workers are becoming less tolerant of the common corporate practice of shifting health care costs. Only 40% of workers say their company provides competitive health care benefits that meet workers’ needs in 2003, down from 63% in 2001.

Andrew Webber, president of the National Business Coalition on Health, says plan designs with tiered medical, hospital and drug benefits can promote consumerism.

Peter Lee, president of Pacific Business Group on Health, advises employers to promote health care consumerism among employees by implementing health risk assessments and providing incentives for employees to participate in wellness programs.

There appears to be a need for clear communication. Only 53% of workers say they believe what their employer tells them about rising health care costs, and only 34% agree that rising health care costs impact their employer’s business success, the Towers Perrin survey shows.

Workers also do not recognize the real cost of health care, since companies pick up much of the tab. Only 47% of employers say their employees understand that rising health care costs impact business success, and 39% say employees understand the true cost of the health care services they use, according to the survey.

In the 1990s, when managed care was popular, “We trained employees to be passive consumers … because what we said was the plan will make the decisions,” Ostuw observed. “Transparency helps [workers] understand how much of your money they’re spending. They need to have the facts.”

Information overload may be one explanation for the disparity between workers’ and companies’ perceptions of consumerism. “When we get overexposed to certain kinds of information, we shut down,” journalist Malcolm Gladwell told participants at the World at Work conference. Gladwell is the author of “The Tipping Point,” which examines trends, changes and the role people play in them.

He advises employers to identify socially powerful people who can bridge the gap and help organizations overcome communication problems. Those people are likely to have a vast array of diverse personal contacts, spend a lot of time on phone calls and e-mails, and know many individuals’ birthdays by heart. “Social power today is more important than it’s ever been when it comes to making change in an organization … It is the addition of social power to knowledge that creates change.” “Change, when it happens, always happens more dramatically and more quickly than we think,” he added. “It happens in these quick moments, and it happens because of a little push … Do not be daunted by the size of the task. Even the largest changes can happen very quickly and very easily.” – L.C.