Making sense of health care becomes a new career

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2008 - 12:25 AM

Jean Schauer's Burnsville company helps employers and workers through the maze of health care options, programs.

Jean Schauer and I have one thing in common: We both have journalism degrees.

The thing is, Schauer parlayed her J-school sheepskin into a business that brings in more than a million dollars a year. Me, I'm still working on matching that total for my career.

Schauer is the founder and chief executive cheerleader for Schauer Global Health Inc. (SGH), a Burnsville consulting firm that helps corporate clients and their employees fight their way through the growing complexities of health care benefits.

In the process, the company also creates communications programs to encourage employees to think of health more as prevention than treatment and cuts overlapping publications and programs that can cost large employers millions of dollars.

It all adds up to a business that is headed for $1.2 million in 2008 revenue. That's $100,000 below the 2007 total, which actually is an impressive feat given that the company spent almost that entire year on a big project that contributed 80 percent of the year's revenue.

So how do you replace $1 million of income in one year?

"Once that big project was over, I had time to start working my network," said Schauer, 48, who spent more than 20 years creating communications programs for UnitedHealthcare and for Watson Wyatt Worldwide, an international employee benefits company. "I could spend less time in the business and more time on the business."

Too many options

Founded in 2003, SGH has grown at an average of 65 percent a year even with the 8 percent decline this year.

There's good reason: As employers seek to contain rising health care costs and promote healthier employee lifestyles, the trend toward consumer-directed health plans has accelerated, leaving both employers and their workers facing what Schauer called "a maze of options and decisions."

Consider: In a typical program, employer and employees pay a specific amount into a health savings account, which workers then use to pay for all medical costs. The burden is on workers to make the best possible health care choices.

Adding to the puzzle is a growing array of preventive programs -- exercise, nutrition, weight management, regular checkups -- offered by employers and insurers.

It's a daunting labyrinth that confounds many workers accustomed to defined-benefit programs, Schauer said. She cited a recent U.S. Surgeon General's report estimating that 90 million Americans do not understand even the most basic elements of health care programs.

Employees are not the only ones who need help: Even large companies are having trouble explaining health plans and preventive programs to their employees.

That's why SGH has won a blue-chip client roster: insurance giants Cigna and Aetna; Consortium Health Plans, a Blue Cross Blue Shield marketing and consulting coalition, and prominent locals such as UnitedHealthcare, St. Jude Medical and the Hazelden Foundation.

It appears the company is earning its keep: For example, SGH saved one of its largest clients -- the company would not allow its name to be used -- nearly $4 million by consolidating a number of overlapping health communications programs scattered in offices around the country.

Or listen to a manager at a Florida insurer talk about the online health care enrollment form SGH developed that provides a complex variety of prompts designed to capture all necessary information, all in an easy-to-use format: "I was nervous about a new process, but SGH made it so easy for us I can't believe we ever did enrollment any other way."

Employers are crying for help

I've known for more than 25 years that Schauer is one smart lady, having given her one of the A's I rarely -- and grudgingly -- handed out in a newswriting class I once taught at the University of St. Thomas.

After graduation from St. Thomas, Schauer worked her way up to communications director at UnitedHealthcare. Later she labored as a communications consultant at Watson Wyatt, where the entrepreneurial opportunity offered by consumer-directed health plans first presented itself.

She started in her home office and in little more than a year had been nudged out to her dining-room table by the three employees she hired to handle the company's growth. She now has eight employee working in a 3,600-square-foot office.

What's next? Schauer recently added a unit called Healthy Revolutions, an online health care communications and educational tool aimed at small to midsized companies.

"It won't be as high-touch as with large clients," where weeks and months of research are involved, she said. But it will include many of the educational tools already developed for larger clients, "so it will be more affordable."

Schauer is confident that Healthy Revolutions can make a contribution: "We did a series of focus groups, and it was apparent that smaller employers are desperate for this kind of help," she said. • 612-673-4439

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