Employee Medical Benefits in a Post-COVID World: What Benefits Matters?

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Editor’s Note: ‘Employee Medical Benefits in a Post-COVID World: What Benefits Matters?’ is a guest article written by David Ho, an Employee Benefits Designer and Broker.

It has been an awfully long journey, but we are coming to our destination. We’ve developed COVID-19 vaccinations well ahead of time and administered millions of two-dose vaccinations. There is a sense of relief and confidence as furloughed employees are returning to work. Benefits managers, while optimistic about the future, are vigilant during this period of recovery. They know that employee medical benefits are changing and will not return to the past.

Management was taken entirely by surprise when the pandemic struck. Leaders cannot be caught off-guard in the future. Many employees who once took their medical benefits for granted show a keen interest in any new developments. They want to see constructive progress because their lives, and those of their families, will be significantly impacted by any changes. Looking in our crystal ball, we think employers can anticipate the following trends in medical benefits.

In this article, I explored some observations and behavior of employees from the US to glean into the future of employees medical benefits.  If you have no time to read through the entire article, here is the TLDR (too long don’t read) excerpt:

While some benefits are obvious, I believe it’s the delivery experience, care and empathy that makes your employee medical benefits feel fresh.  Ultimately you want to make your employees feel cared for and cherished.  The question is: How and what to do next?

1. Increased Attention on Wellness Benefits

We learned during the pandemic days that certain medical conditions made people vulnerable to infection. Obesity, Diabetes (type 2), Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and heart conditions will increase the risk of COVID-19, regardless of age. Wellness programs are no longer boutique benefits that tech companies offer to be trendy. Instead, these can be considered preventive strategies. Management can combine wellness with vaccinations to create an effective strategy that will restrict occurrences of COVID-19 in the future.

wellness program may include the following:

  • Weight Loss
  • Smoking cessation
  • Health risk assessment
  • Nutrition education (this is a means of preventing Diabetes 2)

Best practices for a wellness program can emphasise holistic health and 24/7 support. The latter will help remote employees living in different time zones, and program flexibility that will offer adaptable solutions.

Introducing a workable wellness program as a benefit is a process that assesses employee interest, secures management support, creates goals and objectives, determines what activities will be included, and a system of incentives and rewards (e.g., lower medical premiums for non-smoking). Hence, a wellness committee is going to be an essential part of any wellness effort.

2. Improved Mental Health Service

Management science professionals are all excited about the benefits that come from remote working. After all, Gallup research indicates that 59% of employees who work from home do not want to go back to the office. And employers are not bucking that trend. Remote work makes recruiting easier, gives a person a great reason to stay with an employer, and lowers costs. Also, study after study shows significant increases in productivity with employees working from home. There does not appear to be any problems with this new normal, but some challenges are not immediately noticeable.

Isolation and feelings of loneliness are negatively impacting remote workers.

Aetna International conducted a research study of employers and employees from the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates last year. One-third of all respondents, who are working from home, have a concern about their mental health. Other survey results from this group show:

  • Stress is a significant health concern (32%)
  • Lack of social interaction with colleagues will negatively impact mental health (40%)
  • Personal mental health is more important now than a year ago (84%)
  • Poor mental health has affected their productivity (74%)

There is a very disturbing subset in that last piece of data. 88% of those respondents who also happen to be in the 18-24 age bracket are mentioning the effect poor mental health is having on their productivity. 

This is the age group of many recent college graduates who have heightened programming and social media skills. A sensible employer does not want to see decreases in the productivity of this cohort.

There is more to this than the individual employee. Families are suffering from the restrictions experienced by the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States has reported that in 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits for young children and teens rose dramatically. This can be attributed to the enforced quarantines. The depression and other mental health problems caused by isolation must be addressed by individual and family coverages.

Mental health resources have not been given a lot of attention in the pandemic. A study by Stoneside reveals that only 39% of those surveyed indicated that their employers offered mental health resources. New developments that are addressing mental health include more mental health days to allow stressed associates to recharge their emotional batteries. LinkedIn has a department of mindfulness and compassion to encourage a more humanized workplace.

3. More Voluntary Benefits

Lurking in the background of many medical benefits changes are the costs. Employers might care deeply about their associates, but there remains the question of how to pay for the changes. 

Mercer conducted a study during the pandemic and discovered that many employers were taking a wait-and-see stance on any benefits changes. Approximately 20% intended to raise deductibles premiums or co-payments. Also, around 13.5% intended to augment the services for the high-cost claims. The same research discovered that 16.5% of the employers surveyed were planning on adding or expanding voluntary benefits.

Voluntary benefits are nothing new. Companies have offered medical benefits that an employee may elect to enroll in and pay group rates for them. Employees had the opportunity to get coverage for specific procedures not covered by the company-sponsored health plan.

Voluntary benefits can be attractive alternatives to adding new medical benefits. Employees may also find the portability of the services as an incentive to enroll. It is essential that any voluntary medical benefit is something that the employees want and can use. However, that will require surveying the workforce and working with the carrier to implement the desired service. The Hartford Insurance Company’s 2021 Future of Benefits Study has identified several medical-related benefits that employees find attractive:

  • Critical Illness
  • Hospital Indemnity
  • Accident Insurance
  • Short-term Disability
  • Long-term Disability

There is some room for innovation in dealing with the healthcare costs. However, deductibles and copayments can be a real burden for many hardworking subordinates. PTO Genius, a company headquartered in Miami, Florida, has a unique way of helping its employees better manage those expenses. A PTO Genius is allowed to take up to 70% of their paid vacation time in cash. That helps if a person is confronted with a major out-of-pocket medical bill.

4. Telehealth is Here!

It is a textbook example of technology being used to address health issues. It is ideal for those employees who work remotely and live in areas where healthcare services are not easily accessible. Characteristics of telehealth include:

  • Online patient portals.
  • Virtual appointments via online video conferencing.
  • Remote monitoring of health.
  • Better individual management of personal health.

Telehealth makes mobile phones and tablets a means of getting high-quality care without traveling a great distance to receive it.

There are considerable benefits that come with this new way of doing medicine. Those whose health requires the attention of a specialist will be able to access one who might be hundreds of miles away. Patients with at-risk conditions do not have to jeopardize their health with travel; instead, they can stay at home and get medical attention through the Internet. Any remote employee who lives in rural areas will quickly discover the advantage of health care at a distance.

This is an exciting development, but organisations must be careful implementing telehealth. A company has to safeguard personal information, which requires secure connections. High-speed Internet and good network infrastructure will be necessary, and the proper hardware is essential.

5. Wellness Center 

Organizations can save money by cutting back on office space. However, there are still going to be employees working in the office in the post-pandemic days. Empty offices will provide an opportunity to provide health care services to the staff.

Employers can also consider turning a vacant office into a wellness center. Employees can schedule an appointment for wellness like spa, massage or receive counseling support at the office; this is very helpful as they no longer have to drive to a healthcare facility. Organisations can use the same space for physicals and various kinds of outpatient care. It would require coordination with a local hospital, but that can be done. A company can also use a vaccination station to leverage reductions in office rent; however, this is only if the company is willing to welcome other organisations to use the space for their employee health needs.

6. Supplemental Health Plans

COVID-19 has caused money problems for many employees. High deductibles cause both financial stress and mental anxiety. The 2021 Future of Benefits Study identified critical illness and hospital indemnity as employee desired services. These act as buffers that absorb sudden costs brought on by emergencies.

Trying New Methods of Health Care

Organisations are implementing programs that were never thought of before COVID-19. Technology is playing a significant role. Starbucks has a Starbucks Mental Health Fundamentals. Carrot Fertility has an ovulation benefit for women wishing to get pregnant. 

BenefitExpress is using My Benefit Express to connect employees with many voluntary benefits options. Visually impaired employees can access electronic vision devices if they work for eSight. Contract employees who work for Mastercard can get various health benefits via their credit cards. People with diabetes can receive services designed for their condition if their employer is American Eagle. Other enterprises are experimenting with services that are rapidly becoming part of the New Normal.

Recovery from COVID-19 is happening, but we cannot rest easy. There are disturbing developments in India as of this writing, and there is a high chance that novel strains of coronavirus will appear. It is possible that COVID-19 and its variations may be with us indefinitely.

Hence, employee medical benefits will need to be revised and improved on a routine basis. Benefit audits will become an ordinary part of life within the human resources department. Enhanced sick leave may become essential if a second wave of the pandemic and the workplace must deal with long-term symptoms that will impact health and productivity.

In conclusion

Changes in benefits are not something to initiate only during open enrollment periods. People are looking carefully at the packages offered by prospective employers. They are also basing their employment choices on the quality of the programs. Education and information about new medical benefits are possible thanks to technology; however, an employer still must tend to any questions that their employees have. Personalisation is also essential; hence, Q&A pages on a website will not be sufficient. Changes to employee medical benefits can be a tall order for any small to medium-sized enterprise.

This is where we come in.

We concentrate on employee medical benefits and do it well. Our clients are delighted with our efforts, and we appreciate their opinions about our expertise.

COVID-19 encourages employers to experiment; however, it’s important that employers carefully plan and effectively administer innovative practices. It does not help if a benefit, despite all good intentions, does not adequately provide the services employees want. Indeed, poorly designed benefits can harm morale and damage productivity.

The future of employee medical benefits, as well as other employee-related services, presents an exciting challenge. The right benefits that offer good services and efficient administration will enhance productivity and morale. However, poor or mediocre programs will do the opposite.

We give our best and deliver the best. If you want to know more about what we can do feel free to email me at david@davidho.sg

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