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Union Member Health Plans: What Do They Really Want?

By Heather Kerrigan | Jan 13, 2020

Union boards have access to plenty of information on member activities and preferences. Building better union member health plans starts with turning that data into actionable insights. Understanding your members is key to ensuring that your health care offerings are both affordable and effective.

When members are confident that their health plan fits their needs, they're less stressed, happier, more engaged and — to no surprise — better able to protect their well-being with healthier choices. Here's what you can learn from your members when you know the right questions to ask.

Collecting Member Health Data

A growing number of businesses recognize the importance of using data to better align employee needs with plan offerings. According to a study by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, 61% of respondents analyze health care claims to identify and address employee health care concerns. This data can come from a variety of sources, including insurance providers and members themselves.

Insurers have vast amounts of data, so it's best to approach them with a specific question or goal in mind. For example, you may want trend data on out-of-network claims or high and low usage for a specific category of benefits. A similar principle applies when conducting a formal or informal survey: Understand what you're looking for ahead of time, and ask pointed questions to ensure that any data you collect can be aggregated into something useful. Depending on how geographically dispersed your members are, it may be easier to use online or paper surveys rather than in-person meetings.

Your survey questions should aim to gain a broad understanding of how your members really feel about their health benefits, what matters most to them, what benefits they rarely use and whether there is something else they'd like to see offered. Be sure to survey a diverse group of members — if you can't survey everyone, leverage strong union representatives at work sites who not only have opinions of their own but also understand the perspectives of others in the workplace.

What the Union Can Learn From Health Data

Once you've gathered available health usage data, survey feedback and anecdotes, analyze the information. Take advantage of any board members who may be well-versed in data analytics or outsource the work to a third party. 

This analysis should reveal plenty about where your current health care strategy isn't effective. For example, data collected from insurance providers may reveal which benefits your members aren't using, or may be using unnecessarily. A high number of ER visits could indicate that members struggle to access primary care or don't understand what their insurance covers. You may learn that members frequently rely on high-cost prescription medications for chronic conditions that could be managed differently. This could be a sign that members are not having regular primary care visits or following up on their doctor's prescribed plan of action.

Surveys, whether formal or informal, can support what you've learned from provider data or lead you to new conclusions. For example, you might hear that members routinely seek ER care on Sundays because an employer requires a doctor's note for a sick day on Monday. Or that in-network doctors are consistently booked for months in advance, making it difficult for members to schedule an appointment. You might learn that a large number of your members rely on public transportation, but the in-network doctors are hard to reach, while an out-of-network provider or ER is more convenient. This is also where you'll learn what members want from their plan, like better access to mental health services, lower cost prescription drugs, wellness discounts or telehealth options.

Improving Health Plans

The analysis you conduct will show you what works for your membership and what doesn't. From there, you can turn these insights into actionable items for benefit negotiations. If you bring data to the bargaining table, you'll make a better case for why certain benefits should be enhanced or what needs to be added to the union member health plans. Factors for negotiation may include finding lower-cost prescription drug coverage, ensuring the provider network is geographically convenient for members or eliminating little-used benefits. Outside of these negotiations, the board can leverage what they've learned to launch health campaigns, educating members on the benefits available to them and the importance of taking preventive care seriously.

Improving union member health plans starts with conducting an in-depth review of the data — both qualitative and quantitative — available to you, and then acting on what you learn. This work can be time-consuming, but the investment pays off in better member health, higher satisfaction with the union and cost savings for everyone.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered editorial services to various outlets, including SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and The Kanter Journal. Heather holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.