Not since 1939 have job losses impacted U.S. business more than in 2020. In turn, this has had a resounding effect on health insurance coverage in general and on employee benefit programs in a more specific sense. These changes are driven in large part to the shifting needs of the population and the evolving wants of the country’s workforce. While reports indicate there was a decline in employer-sponsored health plan membership, there was an uptick in Medicaid enrollment.1 Let’s look at some of these changes in more detail and what they mean for U.S. employers.
Health plan options
The primary ways in which people gain access to health insurance are employer-sponsored health plans or the health insurance marketplace which is a platform offering insurance to small businesses, individuals and families. The marketplace is designed to allow a variety of insurers to compete for customers and offers a variety of plans with which to choose. Some states run their own marketplace platform, and 36 states participate in the federal government programs. The health insurance marketplace helps individuals find coverage, compare health plans and access subsidies, as applicable to their financial and household situation.
Special open enrollment periods for state and federal marketplaces began mid-pandemic in 2020 and continue in 2021 as part of the ongoing public health emergency. In addition to an extended open enrollment on the federal marketplace from February 15 through May 15, President Joe Biden is allowing people who have already enrolled in a federal marketplace health plan to change their coverage. If employees are no longer eligible for employer-sponsored health insurance and are asking for COBRA alternatives, it can be helpful to point them in the direction of their local marketplace.
Digital health tools
Employers are adjusting their health plans and benefit models to accommodate evolving employee expectations and impact of the pandemic. Telemedicine has seen a boom during the pandemic. What was once facing slow adoption by health providers and patients alike is now all the rage and expanded reach into the telehealth space is commonplace for 2021 health plans. Today, telehealth is offering a variety of digital health tools supporting fitness and healthy eating, chronic disease management and digital tools assisting with provider selection and access to care.
The need to offer a variety of workforce mental health and well-being programs was elevated in 2020. Work from home environments, caregiving responsibilities, social isolation and other challenges exacerbated well-being concerns. In 2021, employers are revisiting employee resource groups and the opportunity for employees to support one another. Teletherapy mental health is improving access to care as are apps such as Talkspace, an online therapy platform that connects patients and licensed therapists. If individuals are looking for a workplace resource for mental health and wellbeing, the Center for Workplace Mental Health is an excellent resource that can be accessed at http://workplacementalhealth.org. The center has an array of mental health resources addressing mental health and wellbeing for both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic2.
The impact of caregiving on the workplace was increasingly a challenge in 2019 and was at the forefront of productivity and well-being conversations in 2020. How is a full-time employee able to successfully perform job tasks while also caring for an ill or injured family member, providing childcare or overseeing online learning for their children? All these situations and the growing responsibilities surrounding caregiving are weighing heavily on benefits leaders. In 2021, employers are once again offering childcare and elder care services. Wellthy is a digital firm supporting caregiving that is gaining traction. It has been designed to support families with complex, chronic and ongoing care needs.
Financial wellness programs
Another area to watch in 2021 is employer focus on financial wellness benefits. Employers recognize the financial challenges of their employees and the stress they pose on productivity and employee satisfaction. Many employers are offering educational sessions on financial planning in partnership with 401K partners. Paid leave programs continue to evolve encouraging employees to take time off and care for themselves and others. Student loan repayment programs continue to advance and are likely to be a key element of talent acquisition and retention for the next generation in years to come.
The pandemic will continue to have lasting effects on both employers and employees. Those companies who are well attuned to evolving employee needs and preferences will surge ahead in the attraction of talent. Expanded offerings in such areas as telehealth, childcare and elder care, mental and behavioral health services, and financial wellness programs will be become essential and enable employers to take steps toward achieving sustainability, increased productivity and expanded growth in the months ahead.
- “Medicaid enrollment statistics 2021,” Valuepenquin, by Sterling Price, January 15, 2021,https://www.valuepenguin.com/health-insurance/medicaid-enrollment-statistics
- “The leading resource for workplace mental health,” Center for Workplace Mental Health http://workplacementalhealth.org/