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Aetna ramps up benefits for off-site workforce

Health insurer increases the minimum hourly wage for its U.S. employees to $16 per hour, and next year will expand health coverage.

<a href="">"Aetna building in Hartford"</a> by grendel|khan is licensed under <a href="">ShareAlike 3.0 Unported</a>"Aetna building in Hartford" by grendel|khan is licensed under ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Inspired by the growing discussion around inequality, Aetna is guaranteeing wage-based employees a livable income and generous work-from-home flexibility.

In April, the health insurer increased the minimum hourly wage for its U.S. employees to $16 per hour, and next year will expand health plan benefits. About 5,700 Aetna employees in customer service, claims administration, eligibility and billing will get an increase, with an average rise of 11 percent. For some, the boost could mean a raise of 33 percent.

2014 was a pretty good year for Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna, and most other health insurers. The firm posted net income of $2 billion, or $5.68 per share, up 7 percent from 2013. But that isn't a guarantee going forward, given the changes in the healthcare economy.

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"Healthcare is becoming a consumer industry and we are making an investment in the future," said Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, who was partly inspired by the book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by French economist Thomas Piketty.

Aetna's workforce of 50,000 manages healthcare benefits for more than 23 million Americans, and Bertolini has invested in the company's employees in a variety of ways in his five years as CEO. He hopes to have happier, more productive employees while also lowering cost structures.

The Great Recession, the Affordable Care Act and technology have all brought changes to health insurance industry, with increased automation limiting the need for office parks full of people manually processing paper-based reimbursement information.

[Also: CHI, Aetna launch Nebraska's first ACO plan]

In 2009, before Bertolini became CEO, Aetna reduced its workforce by 3.5 percent in a bid to streamline business operations, limit real estate expenses, and invest in areas like technology, new products and services.

Since then, Aetna has expanded into provider-focused services in population health, wellness and disease management, and government-sponsored Medicare and Medicaid programs as well insurance exchanges -- all with a staff that works remotely almost half of the time.

More than 40 percent of Aetna employees telework, some occasionally, like seniors communications director Sherry Sanderford, while others work from home full time.

"In today's digital era, work is less about a place," said Sanderford. "Work is what we do and not about where we are." Sanderford is based in Jacksonville, Florida and usually likes the vibe of the local office, while sometimes working from home and regularly on the road.

Other employees like being able to work from home full-time when their jobs require a focus that isn't dependent on regular interaction with employees. This includes nurse case managers and social workers, who spend the bulk of their time working with Aetna members navigating healthcare decisions.

[Also: Hospitals test out merits of off-site medical staff]

"Employees consider telework a privilege and show higher engagement, satisfaction and annualized voluntary retention rates," Sanderford said. "They save money on fuel, parking, dry cleaning, meals, and vehicle wear and tear. They also report feeling healthier, having fewer distractions and better focus."

In 2014, Aetna teleworkers reduced the company's environmental footprint by saving an estimated 127 million miles of driving, 5.3 million gallons of gasoline and 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2013, Aetna estimated that it saved around $80 million by reducing the need for 2.7 million square feet of office and lowering voluntary employee turnover to just 3 percent.

Twitter: @AnthonyBrino