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Employers Focus on Cost Containment, Mental Health and Telemedicine

A new survey has found that managing health care costs and expanding mental health benefits will be a top priority for U.S. employers as they ramp up benefits to compete for talent in the tight job market spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, virtual care is expected to become an essential and long-lasting feature of employers’ health insurance and employee benefits strategies over the next few years, according to the “2022 Emerging Trends in Healthcare Survey” by Wills Towers Watson.

The focus on health care and insurance costs, mental health and expanded telehealth comes as employers continue pulling out all the stops to compete in a tight job market but face health care inflation headwinds.

Here’s the direction many employers are going, according to the survey.

Dealing with rising costs

In light of continuing rising health insurance costs, 94% of employers surveyed said they are redoubling their efforts to make benefits more affordable for their workers.

Nearly two-thirds of employers (64%) said they will take steps to address employee health care affordability over the next two years. Steps they are considering include:

  • Improving quality and outcomes to lower overall cost.
  • Adding or enhancing low- or no-cost coverage for certain benefits.
  • Making changes to their employees’ out-of-pocket costs.
  • Increasing the amount they contribute towards their employees’ health insurance premium.

Employers also felt that many of their employees were not getting the most out of their benefits and needed further education on all of their offerings. More than half (54%) said that lack of employee awareness about where to find programs to support their needs was a significant challenge.

Mental health

Eighty-seven percent of employers said that enhancing mental health benefits will be a priority for them.

That’s in response to numerous studies and reports indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a mental health crisis.

Another poll — the “Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health” report — by Headspace Health illustrates the depths of the problem:

  • 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees report missing at least one day of work because of stress, burnout and mental health challenges.
  • Only 28% of employees report feeling “very engaged” in their work.
  • Top global stressors for employees are COVID-19; burnout because of increased workload or lack of staff; poor work-life balance; and poor management and leadership.
  • 40% of women and 33% of men surveyed said they feel burned out at work.
  • Remote workers are feeling increasingly isolated.

In response to this, 66% of employers surveyed by Willis Towers Watson said that ensuring that their health and well-being programs support remote workers will be a key priority of their strategy over the next two years. More than six in 10 employers plan to enhance programs and well-being activities to focus on health issues of their employees’ family members.

Virtual care

Use of virtual care — or telemedicine — has exploded during the pandemic, particularly in 2020 and 2021, when many people were afraid to go to the doctor in person for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Additionally, many health care providers pushed virtual care to avoid having too many people come to medical facilities that were burdened by an avalanche of patients.

Congress passed laws allowing health insurers to cover telemedicine as they would other visits to a doctor. And now telemedicine is poised to be a permanent fixture of employers’ health care strategies.

Willis Towers Watson found that by the end of 2023:

  • 95% of employers expect to offer virtual care for medical and behavioral health issues,
  • 61% of employers expect to offer lower cost-sharing for virtual care,
  • 53% of employers expect the expansion of telemedicine to help decrease costs in the long run, and
  • 50% believe virtual care will improve health outcomes for their employees.

Fortunately for employers, a number of companies have cropped up during the last few years that focus on delivering state-of-the art telemedicine platforms.

The takeaway

The pandemic has spurred many employers to prioritize their employees’ well-being, as well as look for ways to manage costs.

With competition for employees fierce, many employers are focused on reducing their staff’s share of costs, while also expanding mental health services in response to growing demand.

Meanwhile, telemedicine services are still evolving, a trend that’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future as health care providers, insurers and employers see it as a way to rein in some costs.