December 15, 2020
When we began 2020, no one could have predicted the obstacles that would face every person and business throughout the year.
COVID-19 has drastically changed the world of benefits, how industries operate and how employers communicate their benefits program to employees. Additionally, the pandemic has rushed the adoption of digital technologies, which are expected to remain. Throughout this unknown landscape, many businesses across the country have adapted to the current climate and have successfully addressed the needs of a stressed and worried employee population.
Here are some of the benefit trends we have seen throughout the past year.
Telecommuting and Flexible Work Arrangements
With stay-at-home orders, travel bans, and the closures of schools and businesses, many companies were forced to adjust and move their workforce to a virtual environment. Thanks to tech tools like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and VPN, companies have the ability to communicate and securely manage business operations with employees who are working remotely.
While telecommuting has worked well for many industries, it has also presented a number of challenges because of the pandemic. Many employees are handling childcare, managing their and their children’s virtual education and navigating their partner’s work schedule on top of their own work responsibilities. Remote work will continue to be a reality for many businesses in the upcoming year, and many businesses will have to adjust in order to support a remote workforce.
With in-person elective care put on hold, telehealth became the preferred alternative for non-emergency medical care. Telehealth appointments become the ideal solution during the pandemic as they offered limited human-to-human contact and relieved the strain on urgent care centers and emergency rooms from treating non-emergency medical conditions.
In addition to vendors such as Teladoc, MDLIVE and Doctor On Demand, primary care physicians and specialists started to offer virtual appointments for their patients. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began paying physicians the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person visits. Additionally, a number of states passed legislation that required private insurance companies to pay the same amount for telehealth visits and waive member copays for telehealth visits.
While telehealth fills the gap in some ways, it poses additional problems. Patients’ vitals cannot be recorded, and physical exams are limited to the doctor asking the right questions. Without imaging, diagnostic tests or other tools, providers are not able to offer complete care, and there may be red flags that could be missed, leading to bigger problems.
Mental Health Support
With the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on the mental and emotional health of employees. One of the unfortunate consequences of the pandemic has been a sharp increase in depression, stress and anxiety. Over 72% of companies have increased mental health support and 59% are extending new benefits, such as reduced hours and extended leaves of absence, into 2021. Many companies expanded their employee assistance programs and financial wellness programs to help employees with the additional stress and challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to best serve employees, employers must keep mental health resources and support front and center over the next several years. In fact, according to Jobvite, 43% of recruiters report that people who are currently looking for jobs inquire about a prospective company’s mental health benefits. “The rise in inquiries about mental health benefits is not surprising, given how hard the pandemic has been on workers and job seekers,” said Brianne Thomas, head of recruiting at Jobvite. “The pandemic has caused a drastic increase in stress levels throughout the American workforce, especially for working parents who are juggling work while also caring for their children.”
Deferred Preventive Care and Its Effect on Costs
The pandemic caused a decrease in the use of healthcare services and employer costs in 2020. However, this break in cost may be short lived. “COVID-19 has played havoc with all previous projections of healthcare utilization levels,” says Trevis Parson, chief actuary at Willis Towers Watson. “In 2020, we may see a reduction in national healthcare expenditures on a per capita basis for the first time since 1960. However, this reversal in trend is highly likely to be only temporary, despite the continued uncertainty about the virus, as previously deferred care returns in 2021.”
A new Willis Towers Watson study found employer healthcare costs in 2020 may fall between 3.3% and 8.8% lower than originally expected, due to canceled and deferred care. With the delay in routine care, healthcare costs in 2021 are expected to increase significantly – between 0.5% and 5% above non-pandemic projections. With employees missing screenings for depression, high blood pressure and diabetes. The lack of preventive care not only affects healthcare costs but productivity as well. The true cost of deferred preventive care will be unknown for years to come.
A Look Ahead to 2021
As we look into the future and enter the second year of the pandemic, the priority for businesses will be the health and safety of their workforces. Additionally, employers will need to support their employees’ career development in order to adapt to the permanent changes to our economy. In fact, 52% of executives are enacting efforts to upskill their workforce. This will be a necessary key to long term sustainability.