Post-pandemic, expect more companies to consider self-funding as a way to meet the specific health care needs of their employee population and keep health plan costs down.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed HR and employees to the brink. On top of keeping company culture strong in the shift to remote work and adjusted work conditions, many HR departments were vital to helping employees navigate their health care benefits while trying to stay on top of new regulations and the CARES act. For the 50% of employees who don’t have a remote option, HR has also been a go-to source for questions about staying safe in this work environment while the virus is rampant.

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Nearly a year into the pandemic, most of the company policy changes made to accommodate remote work and social distancing remain in place and many employers are still encouraging employees to work from home. These policies are likely to remain in place for the long term as employers and employees benefit from the added flexibility and heightened focus on overall wellbeing at work.

A year of rapid shifts

At the start of the pandemic, working from home was seen as a temporary safety measure necessary for a quick return to the office. Then, two more weeks were added to the timeline. And then another two weeks, until many companies declared indefinite periods of remote work.

Remote work has been a critical safety measure during the pandemic, but it’s also resulted in longer workdays and increased employee burnout. These issues brought about a greater awareness of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, resulting in employers offering more resources like virtual counseling.

Before the pandemic, only 20% of Americans used virtual options for mental health care. After the pandemic started, the American Psychiatric Association saw their own members’ use of telepsych sessions jump to nearly 85%.

Employers also introduced virtual health care service options to employees so they could have safer care options while adhering to the CDC’s isolation and social distancing protocols. Before the pandemic, 49% of Americans had never used telehealth services. But like virtual telepsych visits, telehealth visits skyrocketed by 8,335% in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

While increased access to virtual health care options was a positive change from the pandemic, the same can’t be said for health care cost transparency. Most large insurance carriers waived certain costs for COVID-19 treatment. But many patients were saddled with unexpected bills after attending appointments with specialists or receiving out-of-network care.

Health care changes over the past year put immense pressure on HR to be a strong bridge between employees and their health care. However, many HR teams also lacked critical support from insurance providers to help their employees navigate various health care needs. And while the page may have turned on 2020, the pandemic still lingers, which means HR’s challenges aren’t over just yet.

Employers’ path forward

While 2020 served up many challenges for HR teams to handle, we expect many of the trends and changes resulting from the pandemic to remain in play over the long term.

1. Employers will have a heightened focus on health care costs they can control.

With health care benefits taking precedence for many HR teams during the pandemic, it’s likely that large insurance carriers will increase their market share. But we’ll also see demand for self-funded plans (i.e., a health benefits plan completely funded by employers) increase.

Expect companies to consider self-funding as a way to meet the specific health care needs of their employee population and keep health plan costs down. For example, through self-funded plans, employers can control costs with the help of a third-party administrator (TPA). A good TPA can help employer health plan members find more affordable care and flexible network care options. A TPA partner can also help employers leverage cost management strategies like repricing, direct contracts and narrow networks.

However, due to the unpredictability of health care costs during the pandemic, organizations of all plan types will need to prioritize employee education on health care options to see cost savings come to fruition in the short term.

2. Telehealth resources will become a health benefits standard.

Almost 70% of employers now offer telehealth resources to employees and we only expect this number to grow. The shift to remote medicine practices during the pandemic showed us that telehealth is an effective tool in place of in-person health visits for non-emergency issues. Telehealth is also a cost-effective and convenient health care method for employees to use.

3. Employee wellbeing in a remote setting will be a top priority.

With many companies continuing their remote work engagements, ensuring employee wellbeing will be paramount for mitigating burnout and longer work hours.

As a result, wellness solutions will be repositioned as employee benefits rather than cost-saving measures. These benefits will cover four pillars of wellbeing — mental, physical, social and financial — and HR will introduce policies that cover each one. For example, expect HR teams to increase access to mental health resources and employee assistance programs (EAPs). We’ll also likely see the expansion of work-life balance benefits such as flexible PTO and prolonged work-from-home policies.

Navigating health care plans during the pandemic has been a challenge for both employers and their employees. But this challenge also called attention to the human aspect of health care, an area where employers can help improve employee health and wellbeing by ensuring easy care access and cost transparency.

Anne Brunson is vice president of self-funded solutions at Maestro Health.

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