Milligan talks employer healthcare cost reductions at Lunch and Learn

Karen Milligan, population health manager for Covenant in Knoxville, speaks during a Lunch and Learn at the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce.

Morristown’s employers and company representatives gained ideas on how to reduce healthcare costs for their employees on Monday.

The Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce welcomed representatives from Covenant Health for a “Lunch and Learn” seminar on how to accomplish just that. Karen Milligan, population health manager for Covenant in Knoxville, said rising healthcare costs are well-known to executives who are eager to solve the problem.

“When you have those at the top saying we need to (reduce costs), it’s something that has to be done,” she said. “We need the middle managers to say this is something we have to do.”

Studies have shown merely providing wellness programs for employees is far from enough to significantly impact health and lower costs. Interventions and behavior modification programs addressing individual health needs are imperative to making real and lasting changes, according to Covenant.

Employers must reduce health risks for employees which could raise healthcare costs for companies. Many employees suffer from ailments, such as high blood pressure, that might be manageable at home but exacerbated once they get to work. The more hours spent at work daily, weekly and monthly need to be monitored, and taking no action against these risks in the present could cause major problems for employees and employers alike down the road.

“People might be fine at home. Once they get to work, then their hypertension might go up,” said Milligan, who holds seminars on health issues in the workplace throughout East Tennessee. “We need to come up with solutions to fix things like that.”

What might distress employers about lowering healthcare costs is when they bring in medical personnel to do lab work. Covenant advises not to stop the screenings, which include a lipid panel (total cholesterol), a comprehensive metabolic panel, a complete blood count and a fasting glucose for those with a major risk for diabetes and other factors.

Companies need to encourage local providers to handle those screenings, and change the culture of the healthcare workplace.

“Sometimes, we have employees, mostly male, who shy away from labs in fear of losing their jobs because of their health,” Milligan said. “We have plenty of local providers who can (do the screenings) themselves, and make the employees comfortable with the process.”

Milligan also said all levels of management need to buy in to the change in culture, and have frequent communication with the employees on their watch.

“We have to find a way to pay for (healthcare and screenings). We don’t need healthcare to shut down the doors for us,” she said.

Covenant recently partnered with Applied Health Analytics to ameliorate the process of lowering healthcare costs for employers. Applied Health combines health metrics with data, then provides solutions and guidance for companies to deal with heart disease, diabetes, mental health and other health risks.

While the new partnership might be well-received by management, employees might worry their personal information could end up in management’s hands. Milligan said the collaboration will follow federal regulations pertaining to that information.

“Nobody will get to see any personal information,” said Milligan, who has been with Covenant for four years. “Employers will see a general overview, but definitely not anything personal by law.”

Part of changing the culture of healthcare in the workplace is to fix the inherent trust issues between employees and management. Education is the answer to fixing many of those issues, according to Milligan.

“We’re pretty flexible with meeting with employers about their issues,” she said. “That will go a long way to changing the culture of the company and healthcare.”

In Knoxville, Milligan once taught an exercise class before joining Covenant – and implores her employees to lower their health risks.

“I’ve been doing this for years,” she said. “I’ve been teaching how to eat right, but I’m also human. I’ll go to Burger King to get a Whopper sometimes.”

Milligan said she is generally available for short seminars to explain the healthcare process to employers throughout East Tennessee.

“Most of our educational with employees and employers lasts about 20 minutes, shorter than this meeting is going right now,” she said. “We don’t want anyone falling asleep during a longer meeting, and nobody wants another meeting.”