Integrated Absence Management: Early Return to Work

DMEC Staff@Work

Early RTW Can Help Control Healthcare Costs

Return to WorkBy Glenn Pransky, MD

Scientific Advisor
Liberty Mutual Group

By Kerry Brooks, VP

Distribution Service & Support
Liberty Mutual Group

Healthcare is by far the largest benefit expense, projected to grow more than 5% per year through 2024 at least.1 To mitigate this trend, employers are deploying a variety of strategies with mixed results and, according to research, sometimes adverse consequences.2 Scientific studies point to appropriate, early return to work (RTW) to help mitigate healthcare costs.

How well are current healthcare cost control strategies working? Nearly 66% of employers offer high-deductible health plans, higher premiums, or other measures to transfer costs to employees. This has led to at least a 200% increase in out-of-pocket expenses for workers over the last 10 years.3 To save money, more than 1 in 5 adults with health insurance are skipping doctors’ appointments or tests, or not taking prescribed medications. Short-term cost savings may lead to worse health and more long-term expense and disability, especially for workers with chronic illnesses.4 Workplace wellness is another strategy, but participation rates and long-term effectiveness are disappointing.5

Recent studies have shown surprising results: RTW programs can have a significant impact on overall healthcare costs, with additional reductions to indemnity costs. In partnership with academic institutions, Liberty Mutual conducted research on the impact of early RTW on medical costs. In one study, 140 volunteering employees with back pain who were at high risk for disability were identified early on. They were randomly placed into two groups; both groups received the usual medical care, but the intervention group, both the workers and their supervisors, also received problem-solving and RTW training. Overall, the intervention group had 72% less lost time.5

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