President and CEO, Midwest Business Group on Health (MBGH)
The last year has presented its share of challenges, and the impact to the physical and financial health of our nation cannot be overstated. The availability of COVID-19 vaccines and dropping infection rates are cause for hope that we may finally be nearing the end of this global crisis.
Unfortunately, the damage has been done. The drop in preventive screenings and vaccinations over the past year have experts anticipating a sharp rise in cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other undiagnosed or poorly managed chronic conditions. These extraordinary times have also caused stress, anxiety, depression, and even grief for many. As a result, employers faced with keeping their essential employees safe at work and at home must be prepared to address looming health issues, and the unprecedented need for behavioral health services.
During this time, Midwest Business Group on Health (MBGH) brought our employer members together to share and learn from one another how to best navigate these challenges. We also conducted our annual member survey as an additional measure for employers to identify key areas of focus in their efforts to provide evidence-based affordable benefits for employees and family members.
When asked about health benefit priorities for 2021, the top concern for employers is whether employees are appropriately engaged in the programs offered and are using available health benefits.
Beyond just participating in programs, 69 percent of employers indicated that engagement strategies must focus on helping members understand their health benefits and how to use them correctly, and if they are impacting behavior change. Chronic condition management (64 percent) and COVID-19-related initiatives (64 percent) round out the top three. Other priorities include effective health benefits communications, building a culture of health, and specialty drug management.
Also cited were concerns related to the postponing of screenings and other preventive care, missing out on early diagnosis of conditions like skin cancer, poor management of chronic conditions like diabetes and metabolic syndrome, increased risk for chronic disease, a spike in healthcare costs for 2021, and decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.
Employers are not only focused on health benefits. Addressing race, health, and inequity in the workplace is seeing renewed focus with 78 percent of respondents indicating they are currently addressing anti-racism education, encouraging community volunteerism, engaging in community improvement, and working to improve race and gender equality in senior leadership.
Plan for change
Today’s challenges can at times be overwhelming. As there’s no way to boil the ocean, employers must take a targeted and strategic approach to focus on what they can impact and control versus what they can’t, such as waste by some providers, payers, and pharmacy benefit managers. To that end, these are some practical strategies that should be considered:
- Plan options and communications: Offer multiple health plan options to provide employees and their covered family members with affordable choices for healthcare and pharmacy benefits. Plan offerings must be clearly explained during open enrollment to help members understand the financial impact one plan can have over another.
- Ramp up preventive health screenings: Educate employees on the importance of preventive screenings and vaccinations. Employers are concerned they will be paying for the reduction in preventive care for many years. Cancer screenings alone have dropped dramatically. Last year, Epic Health Research Network released a white paper showing screenings for cervix, colon, and breast cancer were down 86-94 percent.
- Expand mental and behavioral health services: Employers have expanded mental and behavioral health services to support members during the pandemic. Much more is needed to improve access to care to meet the increased and still-growing demand for employees and their family members facing mental health and substance use issues. Expansion efforts should include the continued use of tele-behavioral health services. This virtual environment driven by COVID-19 has proven effective and this service delivery model should continue post pandemic.
- COVID-19 vaccine plan: There’s a lot of inaccurate and confusing information in the media related to vaccines. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021, businesses are the most trusted institution with a 61 percent trust level globally. As a valued source, employers must ensure they communicate accurate and up-to-date information from trusted sources. Based on this guidance, they must also decide if or how to prioritize vaccinations, including whether to make them available onsite, and to incent or require certain vaccines. Communication is key.
Our employer members continue to do good work despite extraordinary circumstances. As they navigate through the next several years, it will be even more critical to positively impact the health and well-being of their employees and their families. Working together, sharing best practices, and supporting the efforts of each other is critical.