Employers look past cookie-cutter programs

‘No vendor can understand . . . my employees’

Large employers represent an enormous potential source of revenue for any disease management company. Attracting such employers, however, requires a thorough understanding of how businesses work and how they differ from each other, as well as a willingness to adjust, sometimes drastically, to meet the specific needs of a company and its employees, experts say.

"Employers spend tons of time trying to find out what’s out there in the way of disease management," says Jim Mortimer, president of the Midwest Business Group on Health, whose members include General Motors, 3M, and Eli Lilly and Company, among others. "They want to know what’s out there, what it does, and if it’s relevant to their situation."

More often than not, such employers network with each other to find out which disease management vendors might best suit their needs, says Mortimer. "Then they sit down with the vendor who seems to have some of the best characteristics and track record, and they begin to fashion a program that they’ll try themselves."

The main thing employers look for in disease management vendors is flexibility, says Diana L. Murray, CEBS, CCP, senior manager of Group Insurance Plans at Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago. "Any vendor we have has got to come in and say, ‘What are your issues, and what can we do together with you to effect positive change for employees and their families?’ As opposed to, ‘I’m vendor A, and I have a wonderful asthma program, and if you put this in place you’re going to save XYZ dollars.’"

The vendor must be able to offer a program with depth, Mortimer adds. But it also must show that it’s willing to customize the program according to the structure of the company.

"There is no way that any vendor is going to understand the complexities of my employees," Murray stresses. To impose a template, even one that’s been effective elsewhere, is to court problems, says Murray. What may be a realistic solution for one population might be wholly inappropriate for another.

For example, Sara Lee recently implemented a prenatal care program called Baby Benefits. For many of the corporation’s divisions, the program worked well, but in Dallas, no one was using it. The problem, as it happened, was cultural. The employee population in Dallas was mostly Hispanic, and "in that particular culture, husbands would not allow their women to be seen by other men," says Murray. "If a woman was going to have a baby, she would probably have a local midwife. The issue became, how do you get female Hispanic OB/GYN doctors to administer to these particular women? So I’ve got to partner with a vendor who understands that there are many issues, and the only way to make a program work is to figure out which ones are actually supporting or negating the program."

"It’s like pieces of a puzzle," Murray adds. "If it really is the vendor’s desire to take its expertise and support my employees and their families and it’s really my desire to provide the vendor with all the support that I can from the employer and the community standpoint, then chances are, we’ve got a long-term relationship."