What the Pandemic Has Taught Us

pandemicWhether you’re a TPA, broker, employer, plan member or healthcare provider, the past year has been unlike any other. While adapting has often been difficult, some of the lessons learned can have a positive impact on employee healthcare in the future. Here are a few to consider as you begin your planning for the coming year.

Open Enrollment

According to the IFEBP, 1 in 5 companies handled open enrollment differently in 2020, with many using virtual benefit events. Virtual benefits meetings can be viewed by members from any location at any time. In addition, members can easily share their benefits information with a spouse or family member, something that cannot be done with traditional in-person events. Many used short video introductions and important details were typically made available on secure online employee portals following the virtual event. Offering a dedicated email address, phone line or online chat option can make it easy for members to ask questions.

Telemedicine

Think for a moment that Cleveland Clinic delivered 1.2 million virtual physician visits in 2020, compared to just 37,000 in 2019. Even after resuming in-person appointments, 30% to 40% of all visits at Stanford Health Care are virtual and while physicians and patients say there is certainly room for improvement, nearly 3 of 4 patients say they are likely to choose a video consult over in-person in the future. While many physicians say they would prefer to use telehealth visits to manage chronic diseases, many cite low or no reimbursement and technology challenges on the part of their patients as the biggest obstacles to its continued use.

Health Benefit Value

One challenge that remains even as the threat of Covid-19 lessens is the rising costs facing employer-sponsored health plans. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Hartford show a decline in the perceived value of health benefits by plan sponsors and members. These trends can only change as personal service improves and the barriers standing in the way of healthcare cost transparency are overcome.

As an independent TPA, we place the needs of your health plan and members first by providing personalized service and striving to eliminate costly conflicts of interest that have plagued our healthcare system.

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Boosting Employee Engagement

commonsense-reportingAccording to a recent article in Employee Benefit News, the long-lasting pandemic has many employers looking for ways to help employees stay in touch with their organizations and with one another. A survey by employee engagement platform Glint showed that more than 40 percent of employees say that being disconnected due to remote working is the biggest risk to getting burned out.

In response, LinkedIn has made updates to its popular B2B platform to make it easier for workers to share company content and stories about work-related events. LinkedIn is also addressing mental stress by offering new free courses on meditation. Employers large and small are taking steps to build a stronger culture. If remote working is taking a toll on your organization, you may want to take a fresh look at LinkedIn.

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Beware Cyber Sickness

millennialsWith so many adults and kids spending increased time in front of bright screens, some may be experiencing what behavioral health experts call Cyber Sickness, a feeling similar to motion sickness. While researchers have linked this technologically induced feeling to virtual reality, some have found that it can result from spending extended periods of time looking at screens.

It appears that prolonged screen time can confuse the brain by making it think you’re moving. Visual messages from the eyes fail to synch with the inner ear and other receptors that tell the central nervous system you are moving. While symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches and poor balance can be experienced by children and adults, it seems to be most common in people prone to motion sickness. If you’re spending inordinate amounts of time in front of a screen, you may want to try…

  • Reduced recreational screen time
  • Taking short breaks to rest your eyes
  • Rotating between audio and virtual conferences
  • Closing your eyes or focus on something solid such as the edge of your desk
  • Use arrow keys rather than a mouse to slow the movement of screen images

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Blueberries and Your Heart

blueberriesCleveland Clinic, regarded as the number one healthcare system for cardiac care, wants you to know that a new study shows that in addition to great flavor, blueberries are good for your heart. Vitamin C and a wide array of healthy phytochemicals and anthocyanins help lower existing risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and more. In the six-month study, people with these and other characteristics who ate a cup of blueberries daily for six months were in better shape than those who did not. Vessels and arteries were in better condition with a 12 to 15 percent lower risk of heart disease. To receive the therapeutic benefits of blueberries, add a cup to oatmeal, a smoothie, salad or just enjoy your blueberries as a mid-day snack.

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Paying for Vaccinations

paying-vaccinationsFor the time being, the federal government is picking up the cost of the vaccine, with providers being able to charge an administration fee for actually giving the shot. Regulations require that insured and self-funded group health plans must cover the cost of the office visit associated with the vaccine as long as the primary purpose of the visit is to receive the vaccine. And regardless of whether the vaccine is provided in-network or out-of-network, there must be no cost sharing involved.

Plan documents must be modified to reflect the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations and the change must be communicated to plan participants. In the case of self-funded plans, ERISA disclosure rules allow 210 days following the end of the previous plan year for the plan sponsor to issue this notification. With all the questions surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, it is recommended that employers be proactive in letting participants know that vaccinations will be covered.

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Do You Have a Vaccine Strategy?

vaccineThroughout the past year, organizations large and small have taken many steps to protect their workers. While those that could have people work remotely likely did, others provided PPE and modified workspaces to achieve social distancing. As states continue to loosen their restrictions and more and more people become eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, employers that intend to bring people back to the workplace are working to determine how best to proceed. While very few seem to be requiring that workers get vaccinated, many employers are providing incentives to those who do.

Employees are Looking for Guidance

For employers that place a high priority on wellness, deciding how to proceed with vaccinations is critical. Employees look to their employer for meaningful health benefits and are likely expecting guidance in this area as well. Some HR directors have responded with information about the safety of available vaccines. Because people consume information differently, companies are using many forms of media to encourage vaccinations. Whether you use emails, webinars or videos featuring co-workers, persistence is paramount. One announcement won’t do the job – it will take a consistent campaign to overcome the skepticism that still exists. If you want to reinforce communication with an incentive, you might consider time off to get the shot, gift cards or several extra hours of pay.

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New Ways to Benefit Mental Health

woman at desk

Many of us have read about actions some larger employers are taking to help employees struggling with psychologi- cal effects of Covid-19. Indications are that many small and mid-size organizations are taking positive steps as well. LinkedIn, a social media platform used by millions of businesses and individuals, is offering online courses to help employees address high levels of stress and fatigue. Meditation and how to deal with grief and loss are just two topics covered. A few regional banks are expanding telemedicine options to address some of the isolation experienced by those working at home.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that in November of 2020, 42 percent of Americans reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder. While many employers plan to introduce programs supporting mental health, only about a third of employees surveyed in the PwC Workplace Pulse Survey said their employer was doing so.

The National Council for Behavioral Health’s Mental Health First Aid program offers a great deal of information and resources to help employers and individuals cope. To learn more, visit https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/covid19/.

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The E-Cigarette Epidemic

e-cigaretteIn 2016, ads for e-cigarettes reached almost 80 percent of middle and high school age students in our country. While advertising is not the only force influencing kids, a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 4.9 million high school students showed that 6 percent reported smoking cigarettes and 33 percent used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

While regulatory agencies have been slow to react, pediatricians point out that nicotine forms addictive patterns in the brain that can last well into adulthood. The aerosols that get into the lungs from vaping lack thousands of carcinogenic substances contained in tobacco cigarettes, but they still contain formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. And because adolescent brains are still developing, physicians believe that e-cigarettes can serve as a gateway to vaping of marijuana, which can impair memory, learning and decision making over time.

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Making Your Hotel Stay Safer

shiny hotel sign with starsBusiness and pleasure travel came to a serious halt in 2020, but industry representatives say bookings for later in 2021 are soaring. If you’re considering a hotel stay, a few questions suggested by the Infectious Diseases Society of America may be worth asking. For example…

  • Ask about current occupancy levels and limits the hotel or resort may have imposed.
  • What Covid-specific policies has the hotel or resort put in place?
  • Are face masks and social distancing measures required and enforced?
  • Are there limits on the number of guests allowed in the lobby and other public spaces?
  • How often are employees tested for the virus?

Finally, you may want to ask if the hotel’s HVAC system has hospital-quality filters and how long the hotel keeps a room empty between guest stays. Doing so for at least 24 hours is recommended as a way to clear the air of any aerosol transmissions. Other small measures to look for include sealed water glasses and strapped toilet seats in your room as well as self-parking, automated check-in and check-out, no-touch elevators and easily accessible staircases.

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Technology and Diabetes Care

diabetesAs COVID-19 has made medical office visits challenging, CDC has recommended digital diabetes care supported by connected continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems. According to CDC, when remote monitoring is combined with proper medication adherence and personalized coaching, employees with diabetes are able to receive the constant, long-term oversight needed to maintain a higher quality lifestyle.

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