How Virtual Care, Back-to-School Support, Health Inequities Are Influencing Employer Action

August 20, 2020
Matthew Gavidia

In 2 surveys, employers identified efforts to increase availability of virtual care, support employees undertaking greater caregiving roles, and address social and health inequities as a result of the pandemic.

Amongst the extensive fallout of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, several issues that need to be addressed have been highlighted by employers, ranging from health and social disparities to an intensifying mental health crisis.

In addressing these needs, employers are now at the forefront of providing essential services such as behavioral health and virtual care. Moreover, returning to the workplace is now a task burdened by not solely the risk of infection, but the responsibilities that may be awaiting each employee back home. As school for children and teens is now transitioning toward virtual learning, many employees must now take on a more caregiving role than before.

So, how are employers addressing these needs and working to support their respective workforce?

In a survey titled “Health Equity, COVID-19: Large Employers’ Response to Crises, the Pacific Business Group on Health polled 15 of large employer members, accounting for nearly 4 million employees and their dependents, on the COVID-19 health crisis, as well as their plans to return employees to work, support workers with young children not able to attend school this fall, and address the health inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

When it comes to returning to the workplace, the resurgence in COVID-19 cases throughout the United States was cited a significant factor in adjusting prior plans with 57% of respondents putting their plans on hold and 43% enhancing safety measures. Additionally, to support working parents, 82% of employers say they’re creating flexible work schedules for parents with young children not able to return to onsite schools this fall.

Social and health inequities also emerged as a major issue that employers are working to better address, with 67% of respondents saying they are evaluating benefits and health programs to ensure equity in access and use of benefits. For those already taking action, 46% of employers were cited as taking various approaches to ensuring equitable access to health services, while nearly 31% are addressing the impact of financial insecurity on their employees.

Three types of care were signified as being of primary concern for employers on managing inequities in access:

  • 73% say they’re most concerned about employees’ access to behavioral and mental health services
  • 53% say their biggest concern is chronic disease management
  • 47% report inequity in primary care as a top concern

In a separate survey by the Business Group on Health (BGH), titled, “2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey,” 122 large employers were polled on their health care strategies amid the pandemic. Forming these strategies is no simple feat. Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of BGH, noted that the transition to telehealth services and deferral of preventive and elective care has created a “moving target” that employers must be financially prepared for over the next few years to support their workforce.

Based on poll results, large employers expect to pay more than $15,500 per employee for health coverage next year, which is 5.3% higher than the expectation for this year ($14,769). Furthermore, 45% of employers stated that they view their health care strategy as an integral part of their approach to their workforce, an increase by 9% compared with 2019 (36%).

Virtual care emerged as a notable takeaway from the survey as 80% of respondents said they believe telehealth will play a significant role in how care is delivered in the future, with more than half stating they will offer more virtual care to employees next year. The expansion of virtual mental health and emotional well-being services were also noted, with more than 90% saying they will offer telemental health services and 54% planning to lower or waive those costs in 2021.

"You can look no further than a pandemic to very clearly see that matters of health and well-being do directly impact employee productivity, engagement and, moreover, how employers think about deploying their workforce," said Kelsay.