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A new federal law that goes into effect next month has more employers worried about rising health insurance premiums—and looking to employee assistance programs (EAPs) as a way to keep costs down.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 kicks in on Oct. 3. It prohibits group health plans covering 50 or more employees from imposing extraordinary coverage caps on mental health and substance abuse treatment.

In response, many insurance companies are adding mental health coverage to existing policies—at a price. Employers in most states can expect premium hikes between 1% and 3%. But some plans could see premiums go up by as much as 30%, according to the actuarial firm Milliman Inc.

Cost savings through EAPs

That’s why more employers are looking to add EAPs to their benefits mix. With their focus on providing early and relatively inexpensive counseling services to employees, EAPs can provide a gatekeeper role that helps employers keep health care costs down.

EAPs are confidential personal counseling services run by outside providers and funded by employers. They offer professional counselors with whom employees can discuss work- and nonwork-related problems, which may be emotional, financial, legal or related to alcohol or drug abuse. They also offer referrals when more intensive help is required.

About 65% of U.S. employers offer EAPs as an employee benefit. Most that don’t are small firms—those most likely to be affected by the upcoming premium increases.

The cost to employers: $20 to $50 per year per employee. U.S. Department of Labor research suggests that EAPs can save employers between $5 and $15 for every dollar they pay in, mostly in the form of lower absenteeism and higher productivity.

Tip: To achieve high returns on an EAP investment, you must actively promote it to employees. That’s usually easier in small organizations, which tend to have the highest EAP utilization rates and thus the highest ROI.

7 attributes to look for

It might be time to consider adding an EAP to your benefits package. According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, here’s what to look for:

1.  24-hour-a-day phone response

Seek out EAP providers that have trained counselors on duty answering a toll-free phone line at all times—24/7. Avoid EAPs that require users to navigate an elaborate phone tree before reaching a counselor.

 2.  Confidential services

Licensed, professional counselors—experienced in providing EAP services—should deliver assessment and face-to-face counseling in safe, private, confidential offices. Make sure there are enough counselors in your area to deliver timely services in both urgent and nonurgent cases.

3.  Referral support and follow-up

The EAP should assist employees by providing referrals for long-term or specialized care based on assessed needs, recommended treatment and employees’ financial resources. The EAP should provide follow-up and ongoing support for employees.

4. Crisis intervention

Will EAP counselors come to your facility if there’s an emergency, such as a serious accident or incident of workplace violence? Good EAPs can provide counseling for traumatized employees. They can also help management coordinate emergency-response plans.

 5. Substance abuse expertise

Given their disproportionately great impact on the workplace, drug and alcohol abuse problems often represent the bulk of EAP cases. You’ll want an EAP with specific expertise and experience in assessing and treating substance abuse.

6. Dependent coverage

Comprehensive EAP services are typically provided for all eligible employees, but many EAPs serve dependents as well. Some are open to employees’ domestic partners. If this is important to you, be sure to ask about additional costs and levels of service.

7. Guaranteed confidentiality

EAP client records should be completely private. You (as the employer), insurance companies or health care entities should have no access to EAP records.

Find an EAP online: Access the Employee Assistance Professionals Association’s online directory of EAPs at www.eapassn.org/public/providers/.

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