In The Worksite

Employee Benefits & The New Normal

3 ways to help your clients create and enroll a strong benefits program this fall

by Pam Jenkins

Ms. Jenkins is the assistant vice president for product development at Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company. Contact her at [email protected]

A lot has changed in the workplace over the last few months. Many of your clients may have shifted to remote working, and some may have closed temporarily. Even as the doors of America’s businesses open up, where, when and how people work may never be the same as before. But one thing hasn’t changed: the importance of employee benefits. Employers are as concerned as ever about easing the financial burden on their employees and protecting their financial safety nets, according to one new study. *Nine in 10 employers surveyed say they have no plans to eliminate or reduce employer-paid insurance benefits to hold down employment costs.

More than half of organizations say they’ll fully cover the employee-paid share of medical (52%) or life (54%) insurance premiums to avoid a lapse in coverage for their furloughed employees. Slightly fewer than half say they’re doing the same for dental (46%), long-term disability (45%), vision (44%) and short-term disability (41%) insurance premiums.

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Considering Change

True, some of your clients may face hard decisions. A third of employers in the same study say they’ll consider reducing the variety of benefits offered or shifting the share of premiums more toward employees. But some organizations say they’ll go the opposite direction, boosting coverage to be more comprehensive, increasing benefit options or adding tele-health coverage. And the greatest number of employers — nearly half at 46% — say they don’t plan to make changes to their benefits plans in the coming year.

Whether your clients anticipate changes to their benefits package or not, the current environment creates significant opportunities for you to proactively bring them new solutions. These fall in three major areas:

  • Including the right mix of benefits. For clients interested in expanding benefits options or shifting some costs, you can help educate them on voluntary benefits that meet employees’ needs affordably at no cost to the business.
  • Maximizing resources with value-adds. You can help clients tap into value-added benefits and services available from some benefits providers to enhance the package without an impact on the bottom line.
  • Packaging effective enrollment solutions. Most, if not all, of your clients are going to need different solutions to effectively communicate and enroll those benefits with a diverse and geographically fragmented employee population.

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Including The Right Mix Of Benefits

There’s no replacement for major medical insurance in the workplace. It’s the most highly valued and most commonly offered employee insurance benefit. But even the best medical insurance won’t cover all of employees’ out-of-pocket costs for even minor illnesses and injuries, especially with today’s high-deductible health plans. In fact, a recent Unum poll of 1,512 full-time U.S. employees showed nearly one in four workers are worried about out-of-pocket health care costs.

And with good reason. The average health care deductible for single coverage was nearly $1,500 last year, and almost twice that for family coverage. Add in co-pays, coinsurance and other non-covered costs, and an average family has more than $4,700 in out-of-pocket medical costs each year — and that’s not counting the cost of health insurance premiums.

At the same time, most workers don’t have a financial cushion to fall back on. Only 40% would use savings to pay an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as a car repair or emergency room visit. Not surprising, then, that two-thirds of all bankruptcies are tied to medical issues.

Voluntary Benefits

Voluntary benefits can help bridge this financial gap. Employees can use their benefits for uncovered medical costs such as deductibles and copayments, or non-medical expenses such as travel for treatment or child care during recovery. These benefits provide valuable coverage for many of life’s common — but unexpected — health events, such as accidents and illness.

The most common voluntary benefits in the workplace are life, disability, dental and vision insurance, and you may have already recommended them to your clients. Another key coverage to consider is critical illness insurance. It helps pay the potentially staggering costs of treating cancer, heart attack, stroke, organ transplants and other serious illnesses. And unfortunately, these conditions are more common than you might think.

The American Heart Association predicts 40% of the U.S. population will suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease by 2030 — that’s more than 100 million people. And the American Cancer Society expects more than 1.8 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed this year.

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Struggling To Survive; Then Struggling To Pay

Medical costs for cancer total $80 billion in the U.S., while costs for cardiovascular disease treatment are projected to more than double from the current $318 billion to $749 billion by 2035. Indirect costs — lost time at work, paying for additional services at home, transportation, child care and other expenses — will leap more than 55% to $368 billion during that time.

That can leave survivors deep in debt: A study published in the American Journal of Medicine showed 42% of new cancer patients lose all of their life savings in two years because of treatment — an average of about $92,000. Nearly two-thirds of cancer patients are in debt because of their treatment, and 55% of them owe at least $10,000, researchers found after tracking 9.5 million cancer patients from 2000 to 2012.

Critical illness policies help by paying a lump sum upon diagnosis and additional benefits for a variety of treatments and services, such as ambulance transportation, hospital confinement, radiation and chemotherapy, medications and surgery. The newest versions of these products cover a wide range of conditions beyond heart disease and cancer: organ failure, permanent paralysis caused by an accident, coma, loss of sight or hearing, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and more. Reoccurrence benefits are usually standard, providing another layer of coverage if the same illness strikes again.

Nine in 10 employers surveyed say they have no plans to eliminate or reduce employer-paid insurance benefits to hold down employment costs...

These coverages are available on a group or individual basis, often with simplified or guaranteed issue underwriting. And as a voluntary benefit, your clients don’t have to make room in the benefits budget to add these plans. Employees choose the coverage they want, and pay for it themselves.

Maximizing Resources With Value-Adds

Not all voluntary benefits — or benefits providers — are created equal. Look for those with additional services and capabilities embedded into the coverage or offered as a no- or low-cost benefit to bring extra value to your clients. Here are some to consider:

  • Wellness benefits. Some voluntary insurance policies include wellness benefits that pay a set amount for preventive screening tests such as colonoscopies, mammograms and X-rays. This helps catch potential problems earlier, when they’re easier and less expensive to treat. The benefits paid for annual screening tests also make the coverage even more affordable, in effect reducing the net cost of the premiums for employees. The benefit is paid even if the exam is covered by health insurance and the amount doesn’t depend on the actual cost of the test.
  • Employee assistance programs. EAPs provide short-term counseling and referral services to help employees with personal and family issues and work/life balance. Services are typically free and include in-person, phone or online counseling and other online tools and educational resources.
  • Financial assistance programs. These programs offer education, budgeting, counseling and planning advice that can help employees now and in the future.
  • Telehealth services. These virtual doctor services make getting health care fast, convenient and affordable, especially when in-person visits aren’t possible.
  • Discount programs for drugs and medical services. A discount program can complement your clients’ existing health or prescription drug plan by helping pay for services that are limited or not covered, especially with a high-deductible health plan that leaves employees with considerable financial exposure to out-of-pocket costs. Employees can save money on doctor office visits, prescription drugs, vision and hearing products and services, lab work and imaging tests.
  • Return-to-work practices. Return-to-work programs have been proven hugely successful at helping ill or injured employees transition safely back to their jobs — and helping your clients save the significant costs of hiring and training replacement staff or paying overtime to other workers. Implementing a return-to-work program successfully might require some outside expertise for evaluation and recommendations. Ask your carrier partners if they offer these services or can point you to a resource for your clients.

Packaging effective enrollment solutions

Our expertise and years of customer feedback show in-person, face-to-face enrollments create the best experience for customers and drive the highest benefits participation levels. But that type of enrollment may not be possible or desirable for many of your clients right now.

A solution is using high-tech tools that still provide high (virtual) touch capabilities, and packaging them for a more cohesive, personalized enrollment strategy for your clients.

Some of the solutions to consider include:

  • Virtual meeting technology — Web-based meeting tools offer the opportunity for employees to meet with a benefits counselor to better understand their needs and gaps in coverage, benefits options available to meet those needs, and complete their enrollment.
  • Co-browsing capabilities — This technology allows an employee and a benefits counselor to review information together, then for the benefits rep to hand over control to the employee to create a secure log-in and sign insurance applications.
  • Call center resources — This is a convenient option for employees without good internet access or who prefer a phone call to an onscreen experience.
  • Online scheduling — These tools allow employees to schedule a virtual or telephonic one-to-one meeting for the day and time most convenient for them.
  • Digital communications — Your clients’ employees have unique needs and preferences, so it’s important to use a variety of benefits communication methods to reach them when, where and how they like. These can include emails, digital postcards, custom websites and mobile apps, and digital benefits booklets.

The right combination of high-tech/high-touch tools can deliver remarkably strong results for you and your clients. One recent example for our company was a veterinary clinic group with 6,000 employees in 300 different locations. The benefits counselors in the account switched on a dime to a 100% virtual enrollment when the pandemic hit. The client ended up with excellent participation in the voluntary products and we wrote four times the premium expected under the circumstances.

This fall’s benefits enrollments almost certainly will look and feel different than any you or your clients have experienced in the past. But they can be just as effective when you bring your clients solutions for the benefits, services and enrollment strategies that meet their changing needs.

 

 

 

* Survey of 287 U.S. companies by DYNATA on behalf of Colonial Life and Unum, April 21–24, 2020.

 

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