11/23/2020 Steve Lovell

COVID care and beyond: Improving benefits for 2021

As employers finalize their health coverage and benefits plans for 2021, it’s clear the pandemic is reshaping the way we think about health. Many are considering how offering a variety of benefits that go beyond traditional health plans can contribute to employees’ total well-being. 

According to results from Mercer’s 2020 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, many employers will offer new benefits to support their workers in the coming year. With the pandemic highlighting the benefits of telehealth options, more than a quarter of survey respondents plan to enhance their digital health resources. As the pandemic has driven more individuals than ever to seek mental and behavioral healthcare, 20% of respondents are increasing benefits in this area.

Thinking holistically about what employees need during these challenging times is not solely a gesture of goodwill on behalf of employers, it is a necessity. A recent survey by Prudential Insurance found that 52% of employees polled would leave their current job for one with more appealing benefits. The fact is, employees are placing greater importance on security and benefits. Attracting and retaining top talent will require benefits that are competitive. 

If you’re wondering how your benefits stack up, we’ve outlined some trends you’ll see as we head into what will (hopefully) be a healthier 2021.

Keeping costs steady

With uncertain factors related to COVID care – including the possible introduction of a vaccine and questions around whether people will continue to avoid routine care or catch up on delayed care – healthcare cost projections for next year have varied wildly. But despite an expected increase in employer costs for 2021, most (57% according to the Mercer survey) say they have no plans to reduce costs in their medical plans for 2021. In fact, only 18% said they would take cost-saving measures like raising employees’ deductibles or copays.

Help with high deductibles

The trend toward high-deductible plans that we’ve seen in recent years shows no signs of shifting in 2021. However, as the pandemic continues to breed financial difficulty for many Americans, many companies are recognizing the need for reimbursement plans to defray high out-of-pocket costs. Many employers are offering health savings or health reimbursement accounts that could be used to pay for COVID testing and treatments, as well as more routine necessities like prescriptions, if employees haven’t yet reached their deductible.  Additionally, more employers are offering flexible spending accounts (FSAs) that may help workers pay for COVID-driven childcare needs with pretax dollars.  

Virtual care

A recent survey by the Business Group on Health (BGH) shows the nation’s largest employers consider expanding virtual care and telehealth solutions among their top healthcare benefit initiatives for the coming year. This has been true for the past several years, though the pandemic has highlighted just how important these options can be. Increased focus on virtual options make care more accessible during the pandemic and beyond, which can improve health outcomes overall.

Mental health

Many employers were already prioritizing mental health and emotional well-being before the pandemic hit, but COVID sending millions into quarantine and isolation put the need for mental health services at the forefront. In addition to those individuals with pre-existing needs, many more employees are now dealing with anxiety, depression or grief spurred by the events of 2020. In a recent survey of 256 companies by the nonprofit employer group the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, 53% of employers said they are providing enhanced emotional and mental health programs for their workforce in the wake of the pandemic.

Companies are meeting the moment with everything from improved access to therapy, discounts on virtual mental health services, and subscriptions to meditation and wellness apps. Leading employers like Starbucks and Target have boosted their mental health offerings and are providing innovative ways to help employees access care. 

Making it personal

Depending upon their unique health and family circumstances, the issues employees face during COVID vary widely. Employers have begun to better acknowledge these unique concerns by offering more individualized benefits. With office snacks, onsite gyms and pet paternity leave policies no longer holding their appeal, employers are trending toward perk consolidation and personalization. 

Some companies are empowering employees by providing stipends or allowances that can be used as individuals see fit. Anything from virtual health and wellness memberships, home office equipment and services, home meal delivery or continuous learning may be covered. Putting these funds directly into employees hands and offering choices for how to use them are proving to be an efficient way to make sure workers get the perks they need and value most.

As uncertainty continues and the pandemic stretches on, providing employees with ample resources is more important than ever. From COVID testing to mental health services, 2020 illuminated many new and growing needs within the realm of employee wellness. Providing ways for workers to get what they need during the pandemic and beyond can help ensure a healthier 2021 for both your employees and your business.

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