Health insurance and the model through which it’s delivered have been especially hot topics in recent years.
During an unprecedented pandemic, a good job with good benefits is even more valuable. And the way health insurance — and health care — is delivered has likely changed for good.
Roughly half of all Americans remain covered through their employers’ group health plans. Group health insurance through an employer is the primary mode of coverage in the United States still, covering more than 156 million Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
For businesses large and small, health insurance is an expected part of doing business. Some employees choose not to sign up for their employers’ group plans — they may be covered under their spouse’s plan or have an individual plan that works better for them. But businesses looking to recruit the best and the brightest employees should include a health benefits package and consider cultural changes as the nation’s workforce population takes on more millennials.
Adapt to younger workers’ needs
In fact, millennials now represent 50 percent of the workforce and will soon become the largest segment. And they have different expectations than previous generations when it comes to work and, health insurance and benefits, according to Dr. Vincent Nelson, vice president for medical affairs with the national Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. Millennials value good benefits but believe some things about it need to change — 84 percent of millennials say health insurance benefits impact their decision to stay with an employer, and 73 percent believe coverage for mental health counseling needs to change.
“Millennials want to feel that their employers are invested in helping them achieve a healthy work-life balance,” Nelson said. “That investment includes flexible schedules and cultural permission — the sense that it’s OK — to take breaks when needed and to disconnect at night and on weekends. They also want more whole-person care, not only integrating physical and mental health, but also including holistic, natural and alternative wellness perks, such as acupuncture, homeopathy and financial coaching.”
A healthy workplace culture is more important than ever to Americans, especially those living with lingering stress related to the pandemic. The 2019 Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey from Willis Towers Watson, which surveyed 610 large U.S. employers, predicts the number of employers measuring the stress level of employees will more than triple by 2021, from 16 percent to 53 percent. That same percentage of employers will offer apps to support sleep and relaxation by 2021 as well, the survey estimates.
Nelson’s advice to employers moving forward: Create a top-down culture that promotes awareness of mental health issues; expand options and benefits for employees; and adapt culturally as employees’ needs change.
Benefits begin with health insurance
For many Americans, those needs begin with health insurance, an expected part of the hiring package. Heading into the 2021 open enrollment season and six months into the pandemic, a good benefits package proves invaluable to employers from both a health and recruiting perspective as the industry settles in to a “new normal.”
George Burks, lead executive of the group market segment for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said claims activity is returning to normal after a slow second quarter due to COVID-19.
“Businesses should seek as much information as they can from their broker and their health insurance provider to make sound decisions regarding their health benefits in 2021,” he said. “It will take all of us working together to have the best chance of figuring out an unknown.”
Business owners should remember that the market can expect rapid change tied to innovation and technology necessitated by the pandemic, and benefits packages will reflect as much. The traditional way insurance has been delivered will change, according to Bryan Dorathy, vice president for group markets at Arkansas Blue Cross.
“Insurance will be delivered in nontraditional ways and even new settings,” he said. “Telehealth services are coming at us from every direction. COVID-19 has created a new normal for all of us to think about, and it has an impact on all of us — businesses, providers, health carriers. People were forced to consider a new way of accessing care and found that it worked and was efficient.”
The Robbi Davis Agency in Little Rock specializes in group benefits, Medicare supplements and individual plans. President Robbi Davis believes employees need to be as educated as ever about their benefits. And agents will need to be able to educate and enroll employees electronically.
“Due to social distancing required during the pandemic, open enrollment for group benefits will look very different in the future,” she said. “This is the time for employees to be aware of all benefit enhancements available to them and a time for employers to make sure that their insurance plans offer the benefits that are most needed, such as adequate coverage for mental health services.
Davis expects employers to get creative in offering competitive benefit packages that remain affordable. One example could be expanded access to telehealth services for medical care, behavioral health services and select therapeutic services, she said.
“Some carriers are also suspending prior approval and similar requirements to ease administrative burdens on the providers during this time. In addition, we are seeing more employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs offer a variety of additional services to support employees for a nominal fee. Often, employer group life insurance plans already include an EAP that is not being fully utilized.”
Davis added that offering more than one benefit plan will be a solution for some employer groups, and employers should consider implementing funding options such as Health Savings Accounts (HSA), Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) and Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRA).
All about networks
As the state health insurance market continues to adapt to life in a pandemic and business owners consider where they fit in, Dorathy said the state’s strong networks represent a good balance of cost and quality and employers can rest assured that their workers will continue to have access to good care.
“The virus froze the market for a while, and most groups adopted a status quo approach,” he said. “But in recent months, business is slowly returning to normal, and employers are more open to discussion. The good news is that the networks in Arkansas are solid.”
And strong, local networks can provide extra value. Employers should consider how “shopping local” can benefit their employees. For Burks, shopping locally means meeting customers where they are.
“Arkansas Blue Cross provides sales and service centers across the state to meet the needs of our customers,” he said. “We are able to meet their needs by understanding what is going on in their local communities. Our sales and service teams are a part of these communities, and they are in tune with any trends or changes in the local economies that can have an overall impact to that particular region of the state. Our local presence allows us to partner with our groups to find just how big of a competitive advantage a good health plan represents for any business.
“Shopping ‘local’ also means selecting an insurance provider that is committed to and investing in your local community. When communities are strong, its residents benefit. And those residents are employees of Arkansas companies.”
When prospective employees ask about benefits, health insurance generally tops their list. Dorathy stressed how important it is for employers to offer a competitive and well-rounded benefits package. Shop around, he said.
After all, health insurance could be the deciding factor for a qualified candidate when considering whether or not to join a company.
“Employers have many decisions to make regarding the types of plans offered, deductibles, co-insurance and contribution amounts,” Dorathy said. “Health insurance has become such an important part of the budgeting process that employers must make this a priority. They should be monitoring the performance of their group year-round. You have to strike the proper balance of affordability and out-of-pocket exposure for your employees.”