Significant changes in health insurance enrollment, such as public and private exchanges and new benefit designs, including high-deductible plans and narrow networks, are requiring individuals to take on greater personal responsibility for selecting the most suitable plan and managing their own benefits and costs - often through Internet portals. Individuals must become betterinformed health care consumers who are skilled at using the latest technology to navigate the system and get the most out of their health coverage.
The size, diversity and buying power of the population segment known as millennials or Generation Y (ages 18-34) make them an important group to study. According to the Pew Center, this generation constitutes the largest segment of the U.S. workforce and has surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation.
By engaging millennials, health care sector leaders can plan a future when individual consumers can manage their own health insurance purchases, provider choices, benefits and expenditures simply and cost-effectively.
FAIR Health, a national nonprofit organization, recently sponsored a survey of more than 1,000 adults in the U.S. that brought to light unexpected information about millennials' online buying habits. For a number of reasons, it might be expected that millennials would be the generation most likely to leverage the power of technology to control their health care costs.
They have grown up in a digital world. Millennials are accustomed to using PCs, wireless devices and smartphones for many of their day-to-day activities and have no knowledge of a world without mobile phones or Internet access.
They are avid online comparison shoppers. According to the FAIR Health survey, millennials are more likely than other age groups to comparison shop online. When asked about purchases, including financial services, groceries, automobiles, electronics and medical and dental services, 74 percent of millennials said that they comparison shop in at least one of those five categories. By contrast, 57 percent of respondents age 35 to 44,54 percent of consumers age 55 to 64, and 35 percent of those age 65 and over say that they used a mobile device or computer to check prices or comparison shop in one of the five categories.
They are joining the workforce at a time when health care consumerism is increasingly important. Since many millennials are enrolling in health insurance for the first time, new plan types like high-deductible and narrow network plans - which require more consumer engagement and cost sharing - generally are the only models they know.
Despite millennials' reputation for online use and technological expertise, the survey shows that there is no statistically significant difference between millennials (19 percent) and the overall adult population (15 percent) when it comes to comparison shopping online for medical and dental services. The results may be explained by a number of factors:
Many millennials have not yet taken control of their health care benefit selections and decisions because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) enables young adults to stay on their parents' health plans until age 26. As millennials age and become more involved in the selection of and payment for their own health benefits, they will likely become more motivated and informed consumers.
Millennials are generally healthy. As this population group ages and faces more expensive health issues - including those of their parents - they are likely to employ their technological acumen to comparison shop for health care services.
Health care literacy is still very low. Consumers of all ages lack knowledge of how their health insurance works. More education is needed to build awareness about the availability and utility of cost transparency tools and educational resources and how they can help consumers reduce costs and manage their coverage and care.
Millennials are open to new ideas and ways of doing things. With guidance, they will likely take advantage of the online tools they use in other aspects of their lives to learn about their health care needs and choices.
The FAIR Health survey highlights the need for education and increased awareness of the tools and resources that can help consumers navigate the complex world of health insurance. The good news is that effective consumer engagement tools exist today and are provided over the internet by plan sponsors, payers, providers and non- profit organizations like FAIR Health.
In fact, FAIR Health's award-winning website, fairhealthconsumer.org, available free to individual consumers, offers online cost lookup and comparison tools that enable individuals to estimate the cost of specific medical and dental services in their geographic areas. In addition, FAIR Health's website provides educational resources such as health insurance glossaries, articles in consumer-friendly language and topical videos to help people to understand how they can direct their own health care and manage their insurance benefits. The same information is available in Spanish at consumidor.fairhealth.org and through a smartphone app.
Organizations seeking to advance consumerism and engagement among millennials should follow a few simple guidelines:
Leverage social media and mobile technology. Many young adults access the Internet and social media sites exclusively through their smartphones. Meet them where they live. Develop interactive, visual and user-generated educational content designed for mobile devices. Millennials who find this information helpful will share it with their friends through social media.
Focus on brevity. The three-minute videos of the MTV generation seem like an eternity to some millennials who often watch 10-second videos and communicate in 140 characters or less. They are generally well educated and consume mountains of information, just in briefer formats than past generations.
Pay attention to diversity. Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. Millennial immigrants also make up a large portion of the U.S. workforce. The health care sector would do well not only to translate educational resources into multiple languages but also to develop culturally relevant content that acknowledges the rich diversity of this generation and the U. S.
Engagement of millennials and health care consumers of all age groups can promote wise use of health care benefits and help reduce costs for individual consumers - and for the health care sector overall.