In today’s healthcare industry, more consumers are relying on their physicians not only to diagnose and treat medical problems, but also to provide guidance on how to make the most of their healthcare benefits. This newfound role has presented physicians with the challenge of understanding the inner workings of healthcare policy, tax law, and even compliance issues.
FSAs: Use it or Lose It
Flexible spending accounts (FSAs) are a type of account that may provide the incentive patients need to become better healthcare consumers. FSAs are a tax-advantaged account that can be used to pay for medical expenses not covered by insurance. They’re designed to give consumers more control over their healthcare dollars and can greatly impact their overall financial health. Contributions are made primarily by employees and are free of federal and most state taxes. The funds have helped millions save on healthcare costs, but they come with one important rule: the FSA funds that are not used within the benefit year go back to the employer. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
“Simply communicating with patients is no longer sufficient; patient engagement is key.”
For some employees, the “use it or lose it” rule can be frustrating and may be the reason only 15% of eligible employees currently contribute to an FSA. But today’s limited participation in FSAs may present a growth opportunity for physicians. Through a concept called Engagement Communications, physicians can help educate their patients about how to maximize their FSA funds and make the most of their healthcare benefits once deductibles are met.
Engagement Communication involves tailored and personalized campaign-based outreach through the internet, email, phone, and regular mail, which encourages two-way dialogue. For example, imagine if patients received a series of emails or text messages from their physician reminding them about the approaching year-end deadline for their FSA expenses, and giving them examples of ways to spend down their account balance. Patients with chronic conditions could receive a reminder to renew their prescriptions and have them delivered through the mail, or to visit a local pharmacy to purchase over-the-counter medications. An automated message could be sent to remind patients to take advantage of preventive benefits (eg, mammograms), many of which are covered 100% by insurers. If patients have met their deductibles for the year and need surgery, physicians could send a reminder to schedule the surgery prior to the year-end deadline before their deductibles reset.
Managing the Year-End Rush
Patients are more likely to hold off getting care because they’re paying out of pocket. Later in the year, some have paid enough to reach their deductible and insurance kicks in. That’s the time to schedule in colonoscopies, hysterectomies, hernia surgeries, and knee replacements. After the New Year, patients will have a new deductible, and there’s a good chance it will be larger than the one they paid in the previous year.
These examples illustrate that simply communicating with patients is no longer sufficient; patient engagement is key. By leveraging advanced communication tools, the healthcare industry has a high-impact and cost-effective channel to engage and empower patients. Timely, relevant messaging is a first step to curbing the nation’s runaway health costs.
Originally published in Physician’s Weekly, February 15, 2011