Businesses lose as much as $33 billion each year in productivity because their workers are caring for an elderly or disabled loved one, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Fairview Health Services, one of the state’s largest employers and medical care organizations, also considers caregiver strain to be a growing burden on the health care system, particularly as society ages.

For the past year, the Minneapolis-based company has been testing a new caregiver-support service with its own employees as well as with workers at two of its other companies, health care insurer PreferredOne and senior housing provider Ebenezer.

Known as Caregiver Assurance, the service connects family caregivers with a licensed social worker who can help them find support services and provide counseling to reduce stressors that put caregivers at higher risk of depression, heart attacks and other health conditions.

Fairview Health plans to begin actively marketing the service to consumers and Minnesota businesses in the year ahead.

“Caregivers are swinging from episode to episode,” said Mary Chapa, a registered nurse who developed the Caregiver Assurance program as Fairview’s vice president of strategic development for senior services. “We’re trying to remove some of the complexity for the patient and the family.”

For a $50 monthly subscription fee, social workers can connect families with such basic services as meal delivery, transportation, chores and housekeeping.

The service also can help caregivers navigate the complexities of Medicare, address financial considerations or talk through difficult decisions about palliative or hospice care.

In-home assessments can be arranged for an additional $250 fee. Nonmembers pay $300.

Most of the interaction is online or over the phone and can range from one to three check-in calls a month for families whose situations have stabilized, to twice that during crisis situations.

“We do a lot of validating and coaching,” said Heidi Sklenar Telschow, a social worker and psychotherapist, who works with Caregiver Assurance clients. “People want to know: Is this normal? We also get a lot of, ‘This is not what I signed up for. I didn’t know I’d be in this deep.’ ”

The Caregiver Assurance service is part of a growing suite of “employer solutions” that Fairview Health began developing this year as the company adjusts to a changing health care landscape and skyrocketing medical costs.

The workplace health programs are aimed at small to midsize businesses eager to keep insurance costs down as workers are faced with ever higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Another Fairview workplace program helps workers cope with depression and other mental health struggles.

“There’s a more direct relationship with employers and a care system than there may have been in the past when everything just ran through the health insurance company,” said Rene’ Coult-Calendine, Fairview Health’s vice president of market and product development. “It’s in our best interest as a care system … to get much closer to employers and consumers long before they have to experience us as a patient.”

Still, the process of getting the Caregiver Assurance service to market took some convincing. Fairview’s research found a need for family caregivers to get support and a lack of available workplace programs. Yet when Coult-Calendine presented the concept to her advisory group of 15 Twin Cities businesses of various sizes and industries, she received a cool reception.

She sent them back to talk to their managers and employees.

“And honestly, to a T, when they came back it was eyes wide open,” she said. “They learned that this was a huge drain on individuals trying to balance demands of their job and the demands of being a caregiver.”

Research shows that businesses incur significant costs from caregiving, including absenteeism, making workday adjustments, shifting workers from full- to part-time work and simply replacing them.

Meanwhile, surveys from AARP and others show that more than two-thirds of those caring for frail loved ones suffer job-related difficulties, including reducing hours, taking unpaid time off, retiring early or receiving warnings about job performance.

Dr. Kim DeRoche, a practicing Fairview family medicine physician and executive, said the Caregiver Assurance program is part of a larger movement to broaden from a patient-centered medicine to one that is more family focused.

Getting support can help prevent health problems for caregivers while also “reframing how the medical visit happens” for the physician.

“Caregivers are sometimes the key to success of the patient,” she said.