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What we can learn from the biggest and most controversial issues we’ve looked at this year.

Is it just me, or is there just more stuff happening all the time? One thing I know for sure is that this has not been a year when anyone in benefits management could sit back and relax. There are just too many big changes happening. So, here are the top 10 things you should know – and that could jump up and bite you if you don’t see them coming. (Please follow the links to the full blog for more details in each case.)

1. Heads up: It’s more important than ever to make sure you are 100 percent in compliance with all of the Ministry of Labour rules and regs. Their current policy seems to be to play hardball all the time. We’re not just talking about safety infractions or health hazards – we’re talking about on-the-spot fines for things like having the wrong WSIB poster in the common area, or not having the “green book” of occupational health and safety legislation readily available to employees. Remember when they would issue an order for that, and give you time to comply? No longer. Now they’re more likely to lay charges and issue fines right off the bat — $350 for starters, and up to $1500 per infraction.

2. Big data has come to the world of benefits fraud detection. Claims all get filtered through big-data analysis to spot patterns and connections that could raise red flags if anything is out of the ordinary. It used to be that the only way anyone got caught was if there was a whistle-blower or a major slip-up of some kind. But not so much anymore. Now insurers can spot fraud by running every claim through the big computer to see if anything about it fits a known pattern, or seems inconsistent – or suspicious.

3. It’s time for all workplaces to develop and implement a mental wellness policy. The fact is that having a working policy on mental health and, more to the point, proactively managing mental health issues in the workplace is most likely going to be a legal requirement at some point. You can do yourself and your workplace a lot of good by getting ahead of the curve and doing it now, bringing everyone on board now, taking the time to get everyone comfortable with the idea and the process – and not having to scramble to catch up later.

4. Legalized cannabis also means that reliable testing for impairment in safety-sensitive functions, such as driving, are quickly being developed and implemented. Federal legislation passed at the same time as cannabis legalization now sets some very specific “legal limits” for cannabis and driving – much like the legal limits for blood alcohol that we’re all familiar with. These are objective, measurable limits, and they are now part of the Criminal Code. At the same time, reliable tests – such as saliva swabs – are being introduced that will allow law enforcement to detect cannabis impairment – much like breathalysers do for alcohol impairment.

5. Make sure you keep your travel insurance up-to-the-minute and accurate before and during your trip. Travel plans and circumstances change. Perhaps you change your plans before you even leave. Maybe something comes up halfway through. Whatever. But if there is any change, you need to contact your insurance provider, let them know, and make arrangements to be covered. Make sure you travel with your policy information and all the contact numbers to make sure you can contact your provider if you have questions, claims or new information to report during the trip.

6. If you’re still leery about addressing mental wellness in the workplace, try thinking of it as first aid for mental health. It’s a great concept, and it instantly puts our role in employee mental health into a new perspective. As employers, we’re obviously not able to diagnose or treat mental issues – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t see when there’s a problem, or that we shouldn’t take the first steps to help. (The blog includes a list of dos and don’ts for mental health first aid from the professionals.)

7. Pharmacogenetics is here to stay, although it is – as yet – far from the magic bullet we may have been expecting. It basically consists of using a person’s genetic profile to pick the most effective treatments for that individual. Major insurance carriers are already in the process of conducting studies and even running pilot programs in pharmacogenetic testing. Chronic pain and mental illnesses are among the first areas in which pharmacogenetic testing appears to offer useful guidance in prescribing the right medications the first time.

8. When a benefits claim is denied, it is often because of incomplete or out-of-date information on file for the employee in question. One of the things that employers can do to prevent this from happening is to send annual, individual memos, spelling out each employee’s information and plan details in plain language. This has several clear benefits: it informs employees of exactly where they stand, it gives them a chance to update or correct the record, and it creates a paper trail of your due diligence.

9. I admit that I’ve always been a little leery about statistics, and especially ones that I find on the Internet, but the numbers on chronic pain leave me scratching my head. I think of all the people I know, my family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, and ask myself, are one in 10 or even one in five of them fighting chronic pain (as some of the stats seem to suggest)? Really? Could it be that there are people with chronic pain all around me, and I don’t even know about it? Something’s not adding up here.

10. Financial wellness education is an often-overlooked area in which employers can offer useful benefits to their employees. It could be things like debt counseling, handled through your employee assistance program. But it should also include education on benefits and insurance, as well as financial planning. Many employees – especially younger ones – tend to ignore these things, but they could benefit greatly from a nudge in the right direction.

It’s been a busy year, and I can hardly believe we’ve almost come to the end of another one. I look forward to spending time with my family and friends, and I wish you all a safe and happy holiday season. From all of us to you and yours, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

If there is a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me at bill@penmore.com.

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