Talking health care, from left: moderator Dr. Vikas Saini of the Lown Insitute, Wendy Hultmark of Elsevier, Natasha Prasad of Cleo, Melissa Frieswick of Maven, and David Krieger of Gallagher Communication (Photos by Steven Edson)

Aiming to improve healthcare for its 1.5 million U.S. workers, Walmart is planning to test a variety of new programs next year, including health-care “concierges.” Starbucks, for its part, aims to expand its workers’ access to mental-health care. In a tight labor market, both companies are seeking to provide more attractive benefits, even as the cost of workplace health-care coverage at big companies is expected to rise another 5% next year.

What are the keys to addressing these competing challenges? Cost, quality and compassion. That trio of factors, combined with strong communication strategies, should form the foundation for what employers consider while implementing effective health-care plans in a rapidly changing, diversifying workforce, according to a panel of experts in a panel discussion at From Day One’s conference last month in Boston.

Moderated by Vikas Saini, M.D., president of the Lown Institute, the panel explored how the complex worlds of health-care plans and providers must be accessible to populations diverse not only in age, gender, race and orientation but also geographic location, socioeconomic status and stage in life–such as early parenthood.

Melissa Frieswick, chief revenue officer of Maven, which provides maternity and family benefits, pointed out that many companies are dealing with different cultures and societies within an international workforce; what might work for one person in India might not for an employee in the U.S., for example. On top of that, specialist care may be unavailable in their different locations, making it important to utilize telemedicine or otherwise put workers into touch with the right providers. Frieswick summed up: “Start with your own data, understand where your plans are, understand the cultural differences … that’s what I would start with: the culture and the data.”

Said Krieger: “There’s a big gap in employee understanding what’s available”

The calculation needs to be made with a combination of analysis and compassion. “What is the actual dollar cost to providing support, keeping the same level of quality outcomes, and having a positive experience for the patient, on the other side of it?” asked Natasha Prasad, vice president of customer relations at Cleo, a family-support system for working parents, highlighting the major factors her company considers.

Many companies have started to look more closely at supporting the transitional periods in the lives of employees. “No one has nailed … the transition into parenthood that is just not supported well from the health perspective, from an overall mental-health and wellness perspective, and from the medicinal perspective,” said Prasad. “Most of us will be, or most people want to be, parents at some point–and when that transition happens, most people will be employed by someone,” she said. “The employer’s in a really strong position to be able to deliver on that health, wellness, emotional and logistical support.”

 Generational differences present unique challenges. Wendy Hultmark, human-resources director at Elsevier, whose company began as a traditional publisher, pointed out that her company, “more and more, we are moving towards data and analytics as to services that we’re providing.”

“From the employee standpoint, we have a large population who have been with the company for a very long time and may have more maybe traditional expectations around health care and benefits and yet … we have to look at the workforce of the future,” she said.

Elsevier is making “a lot of acquisitions of small technology firms who have their own approach to health care and benefits, so that’s been a real challenge for us, the way we are dealing with that. So we’ve taken on board a lot of employee feedback. I think a few years ago, we really aggressively went after the cost of health care; we really moved to pretty much all high-deductible plans, really got away from … internal service provided by the company for health care. And we’re scaling that back a little. The feedback I’m getting from people is, it’s a bit too aggressive.”

Elsevier, she said, is simplifying its portfolio of offered health coverage and complementing it more with enticements such as paid leave.

Feedback and communication are essential to company success, agreed all panelists. David Krieger of Gallagher Communication pointed out that the way a plan is presented and explained to employees can make a key difference; he cited research by UnitedHealthcare, which found that only 7% of consumers can define terminology such as “premiums,” while more than 50% aren’t sure what they pay in health-care costs and another 55% estimate they waste $750 per year on medical expenses.

Said Hultmark: “We have to look at the workforce of the future”

“There’s a big gap in employee understanding what’s available, and that creates all kind of issues,” he said. He emphasized the need for employer-employee communication and education, but he also noted that, as companies strive to do the best for their employees against the backdrop of a rapidly changing professional landscape, there is only so much they can do–or have to do–as employers.

“Benefits, first of all, they’re money,” he said “It’s money; it’s just money, and call it life insurance or health insurance … [it’s] a bucket of money. And the question you have to ask yourself is … motivation. What are my benefits, plans, objectives, and how are they aligned with my HR and business strategies?”

He added: “What are your expectations, and [how], actually, are you trying to get your employees to behave, and how can you support that behavior?”

“The decisions become a little bit more simple when you start with the objectives for the business and your people and that broad amount of money that you put in,” Hultmark said.

Sheila Flynn is a New York-based journalist who has written for DailyMail.com, the Irish Daily Mail, and the Associated Press. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame