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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The Value of Medication Adherence

Encouraging members and their dependents to take their prescriptions as directed by their doctor or pharmacist has long been a concern for health plans. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spike in most parts of the country, the problem has intensified, with experts estimating that the increased cost to our healthcare system may be nearly $300 billion annually.

Traditional challenges of rising costs and a failure to read and understand health information have been exacerbated by the fear of in-person doctor visits. Overcoming these issues requires increased communication and support because there is no doubt that when people fail to take their medications as prescribed, health plans often end up dealing with higher claim costs down the road.

A Higher Level of Support

Providing a high level of support can help many members avoid serious medical
complications in the future. Collaborating with a PBM or member advocate to send a
text message when a refill is due can be a big help. Some plans offer a lower copay as an
incentive to fill prescriptions on time.

Taking the time to understand a member’s needs and concerns can go a long way in
increasing medication adherence. While concerns about using generic alternatives,
copay assistance programs and transportation are common, addressing language barriers,
disabilities and other social factors are measures that can make a big difference.
Providing a higher level of support will not only produce higher quality outcomes, but
lower pharmacy benefit costs as well.

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New Rules for Drug Pricing

drug-pricingTwo final rules related to the President’s promise to lower the cost of prescription drugs were recently announced by President Donald Trump. The first, known as the “most favored nation” rule, would lower the price of 50 Medicare Part B drugs to those paid by other wealthy countries. This pricing would apply only to Medicare beneficiaries. The second rule, intended to simplify drug pricing and pass available discounts to consumers, would eliminate the rebates drug manufacturers currently pay to Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) on higher priced brand name prescription drugs. Interestingly, in another recent action, drug manufacturers filed a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from allowing states to import certain prescription drugs. Their suits argue that the last-minute steps by the President would expose the public to safety risks while not achieving any significant economic advantages for the public.

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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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Working Remote = Working More

remote-workingAccording to a video conferencing company, employees working remotely have been logging about one extra day a week as the lines between work and home continue to blur. While some have saved commuting time, others are simply extending their workday. Despite some challenges, many people are enjoying greater flexibility and feeling just as productive when working remotely.

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Lowering Stress Takes Creativity

You don’t have to dig very deep to discover higher stress levels due to the pandemic. To combat the problem, many companies are taking creative steps to help employees relax. While some are providing a free day each quarter, others are doing it monthly. From “you days” to “disconnect and recharge” days, these are must-take days where everyone is free to enjoy a break without feeling guilty or worrying about what they may be missing.

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Member Education: A Year-Round Job

member-educationAs a health plan sponsor or HR professional, you’ve no doubt witnessed the introduction of new tools or applications intended to help plan members become better healthcare consumers. Unfortunately, these efforts often fall a little short of expectations. After decades in self-funded health plan administration, we can say that while these programs were well designed, the education associated with them was not.

Today, a health plan cannot achieve company objectives unless members buy into the utilization strategies. What can a plan do to engage members in ways that will make a difference? Education and incentives can be a winning formula – here are a few ideas.

    • From coping with Covid-19 to open enrollment, employers were forced to communicate differently in 2020. Company-wide gatherings and annual health fairs were replaced by more frequent zoom conferences and digital events. As a result, employers trimmed content and focused on critical topics. While personal meetings will likely return as the fear of gathering subsides, the lessons learned in the past 10 months will improve employee education in the future.
    • Regardless of how your plan chooses to incentivize members, rewards must be tied to member engagement. One option is to share plan savings with members who lower claim costs by choosing high quality, low-cost providers. This often requires that the plan negotiate in advance with hospitals or centers of excellence that are efficient for certain procedures. Giving a member a percentage of the savings realized by the plan can go a long way to boost overall engagement.
    • Some plans reward members who consult with HR before selecting a healthcare provider for an elective procedure. This helps members use their benefits to their best advantage and controls overall plan costs.

Regardless of how you proceed, it’s important to realize that education requires time to plan and resources to execute. Whether you choose virtual lunch and learns, monthly podcasts by HR or something different altogether, it takes repetition to make a positive difference.

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Rules for Pooled Plans

healthcareAs a way to give small businesses the opportunity to offer their employees a workplace-based retirement savings option that is easy and inexpensive to maintain, the Department of Labor moved to establish rules for Pooled Employer Plans or PEP. According to the law, pooled plan providers will need to register with the Labor and Treasury secretaries in advance and once registered, can begin operating PEPs as early as January 1, 2021. The goal for the option, which was made possible by the Secure Act of 2019, is to make saving for retirement cost-effective for more employees throughout the U.S.

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