Not to worry. Today’s technology safely houses healthcare data in the cloud.
By Brent Skinner
A slew of technologies for business processes are fleeing the premises, most notably workforce management and its many permutations. The best place for human capital management (HCM) technology is now in the cloud. Just ask enterprise resource planning (ERP) powerhouses Oracle and SAP AG. In February, SAP completed its acquisition of the highly respected cloud HCM provider SuccessFactors, and the same month Oracle followed strategic suit by announcing its intent to acquire the equally respected Taleo Corporation. With all the benefits that a move to the cloud brings to the provider and user alike, considerations worth mulling—like security—present themselves. Especially when that off-premise data is confidential health information of employees.
The administration of healthcare benefits simultaneously burdens the HR professional with tedious minutia and represents something of incomparable importance for the employee. The level of responsibility that both third-party vendor and employer have to shoulder for the safeguarding of private healthcare data presents both legal and ethical challenges. Add to that stringent government regulatory guidelines, and you’d think there wouldn’t be a market for benefit management via the cloud. Yet a cross-section of HCM technology providers delivers employers a slew of competitive offerings to begin administering employees’ benefits offsite.
In a way, the move to cloud computing solutions for business processes such as workforce management and, by corollary, to administer healthcare benefits is a foregone conclusion. “Most healthcare data is stored in the cloud today,” says Shannon Daly, vice president of human resource operations at Appirio Inc., a cloud brokerage company that deploys custom cloud solutions in the HR space using technology from one of its partners, Workday. Recognized in Gartner’s November 2011 Who’s Who in Cloud Services Brokerage report, Appirio is creator of CloudSpokes, a crowd-sourcing community focused exclusively on cross-cloud development.
“Personal medical history and insurance information and 401k data is accessible through the Internet, or public cloud,” says Daly. “This isn’t alarming to the average consumer, because the platform this personal information is stored on is secured by carriers and system providers that are held accountable by multiple agencies. As an employer, there isn’t any information that I would not move to the cloud. Our team executes extensive review processes with our carriers and systems providers to understand how employee data will be secured, and we ensure that they are meeting all requirements to protect the data. It would be uneconomical to replicate the same level of security if we decided to store the same data on private servers.”
Conducting Due Diligence
Security and data protection, business continuity, data control and IT staff capabilities, according to Sau Lam, manager of global client services for Access Markets International (AMI) Partners, are chief among the factors bearing on cloud technology providers’ ability to deliver high-quality service. Employers do well to investigate these factors as they consider moving into the cloud. “Healthcare organizations should ask cloud services providers to provide clarity on how they protect personal health information and achieve HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and HITECH (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health)compliance,” says Lam.
“Service providers usually guarantee 100 percent up time, but outages are unavoidable. It’s imperative that the employer knows what the proper protocol is in case of an outage. What are the safety measures such as secure backup and disaster recovery?”
Be sure to ask very thorough questions when considering a third-party provider—especially when it comes to security of data. “What are our cloud solution providers doing with our data?” Lam continues. “Are they sharing with or selling to third-parties? Who is keeping a watchful eye on it? How easy/difficult is it to transfer data to another provider? Making sure their IT staff has the skills to manage a cloud computing environment is a major concern for many healthcare organizations]. Investing in training and upgrading skills that properly prepare them to manage the new IT infrastructure framework can be daunting.”
Going For It
Companies that move their healthcare benefits administration to the cloud have a wealth of offerings in the HCM technology marketplace to choose from. The level of customizability and flexibility provided by these solutions is robust.
“We do plan administration, set up, and configuration,” says April Escamilla, director of product management for SilkRoad technology, creator of HeartBeat, a cloud-based core HR solution. “We do enrollment, we have benefits administration, and we help with the employee side of the enrollment, being able to view their current enrollment information. Additionally, we certainly do quite a lot of the aspects of the benefits piece, and we have an integration directly to benefits providers, which is a huge time saver for benefits administrators.”
HeartBeat is an on-demand core HR system that allows workers and managers to access and act on HR information relevant to them. This information can be readily integrated with all SilkRoad’s Life Suite solutions or other HR-related third-party applications, such as payroll, recruiting, performance, training and compensation, and providing a unified front-end for all users. Role-based control streamlines the process.
“We give different types of functions to different types of users. So, immediately upon login, based on your roles, you’re going to have the access you need and no more. We’re not going to confuse you with administrative buttons or with terminology you may not be familiar with,” says Escamilla.
Another option is ADP’s Vantage HCM, which unifies the disparate HR processes of large organizations, automating and integrating them into a real-time, end-to-end view. Vantage HCM combines the pillars of human capital management: HR, payroll, benefits, talent management, and time and attendance.
“Certainly, benefits administration is a core component of Vantage,” says Dara Brenner, vice president of product management for ADP. “We believe that the benefits, in and of themselves, are extremely important in an overall HCM solution; it’s a core component of that and as such, a part of the Vantage HCM solution. Where Vantage HCM differs in a lot of cases from other providers in the space is that we are actually doing outsourced benefits administration as part of the offering.”
Benefitfocus is a platform that is suitable for small, medium, and large organizations with benefits and related actions accessible in one place. Security—says president and CEO Shawn Jenkins—is not an issue. “Our design and user interface are unlike any other,” says Jenkins. “Benefitfocus has invested more than $200 million in our cloud infrastructure. That investment is designed to meet the security demands of a platform with more than 15 million employees.”
Dallas-based ExponentHR’s SaaS-delivered HRIS handles traditional payroll processing, HR administration, and benefits administration. The web-based, self-service technology reduces direct cost and provides scalable infrastructure to both service and engage a distributed workforce. “Most other systems require integration to ensure disparate modules and applications connect to multiple data sets,” says Fidel Baca, chief marketing officer and principal at Exponent Technologies, Inc., where he is a founder and co-architect of the HRIS platform. “ExponentHR’s unique approach means you only enter data once to update every function and field in the system.”
Atlanta-based ContinuousHealth provides cloud-based solutions for group benefits. Among these is CH At Work, a healthcare benefits administration product. “Our clients consistently tell us they have chosen ContinuousHealth because of our focus on execution and because our technology architecture serves the diverse needs of their benefit plans,” says Eric Helman CEO, president and founder of ContinuousHealth.
“Cloud-based technology is an enabler [that delivers] lower cost and greater access, but […] customers want flexibility combined with flawless execution. That is our focus.”
The way organizations handle data management has changed tremendously as technologies improve. Employers looking to migrate into a cloud-based solution should conduct due diligence and take stock of the fundamental legitimacy of moving into this element of workforce management (i.e., healthcare benefits administration) there, too.