As workers fight pandemic impact, employers expand mental health benefits

As the COVID-19 pandemic crosses its second year, the way forward for American workers remains uncertain, with many continuing to work from home as policies to maintain a safe workplace evolve. In its 2021 survey of employer health benefits, released on November 10, KFF found that many employers have stepped up mental health and other benefits to provide support to their workers in times of uncertainty.

At the same time, the proportion of employers offering health insurance to their workers has remained stable, and increases in health insurance premiums and direct health expenditure have been moderate, in line with rising wages. Deductibles remained virtually unchanged from the previous two years.

“With the pandemic, I’m not sure employers wanted to make big changes to their plans because so many other things have been disrupted,” said Gary Claxton, senior vice president of KFF and director of Health Care Marketplace Project. (KHN is an independent editorial program of the foundation.)

Achieving a dispersed workforce is also a challenge, with on-site activities such as employee benefit lounges reduced or eliminated. “It’s even difficult to communicate the changes right now,” Claxton said.

Many employers have reported that since the start of the pandemic, they have made changes to their mental health and substance use benefits.

Almost 1,700 public and private non-federal companies responded to the full survey. In companies with 50 or more employees, 39% have made such changes, including:

  • 31% who have increased the means by which employees can access mental health services, such as telemedicine.
  • 16% that offered employee assistance programs or other new mental health resources.
  • 6% who expanded access to network mental health care providers.
  • 4% who reduced cost sharing for such visits.
  • 3% who increased the coverage of off-grid services.

Workers benefit from the services. Thirty-eight percent of the largest businesses with 1,000 or more employees said their employees used more mental health services in 2021 than the previous year, while 12% of businesses with 50 or more employees said their employees used mental health services more often than in the previous year. employees had increased their use of mental health services.

Thundermist Health Center is a federally licensed health center that serves three communities in Rhode Island. The centre’s health plan offers employees an HMO and preferred supplier organization, and 227 workers are enrolled. When the pandemic hit, the health plan reduced co-payments for behavioral health visits to zero by $ 30.

“We wanted to encourage people to get help who were feeling stress or worried,” said Cynthia Farrell, associate vice president of human resources at Thundermist. Once the pandemic is over, if the health center adds a co-payment again, it will not exceed $ 15, she said.

The pandemic has also changed the way many businesses have handled their wellness programs. More than half of those with 50 or more workers expanded these programs during the pandemic.

The most common change? Expansion of online consulting services, reported by 38% of companies with 50 to 199 employees and 58% of companies with 200 or more employees. Another popular change was to expand or modify existing wellness programs to meet the needs of people working from home, reported by 17% of small businesses and 34% of large businesses making the changes.

Strengthening telemedicine services was a popular way for employers to facilitate access to services for workers, who may have worked remotely or whose clinicians, including mental health professionals, may not have been. not seen the patients in person.

In 2021, 95% of employers offered at least some health care services through telemedicine, up from 85% last year. These were often video appointments, but an increasing number of companies have allowed telemedicine visits by telephone or other means of communication, and have expanded the number of services offered in this way and the types of services offered. providers who can use them.

About 155 million people in the United States have employer-sponsored health care. The pandemic has not changed the proportion of employers providing coverage to their workers: it has remained broadly stable at 59% over the past decade. However, size matters and while 99% of companies with 200 or more employees offer health services, only 56% of those with less than 50 employees do.

In 2021, the average premiums for family and individual coverage increased 4%, to reach $ 22,221 for families and $ 7,739 for individual coverage. Workers with family coverage contribute an average of $ 5,969 to their coverage, while those with individual coverage pay an average of $ 1,299. The annual change in premiums was in line with workers’ wage growth of 5% and inflation of 1.9%.

But over the past 10 years, average premium increases have far exceeded increases in wages and inflation. Workers pay an average of 17% of the premium for individual coverage and 28% of that for family coverage. The employer pays the rest. Deductibles remained stable in 2021. The average deductible for individual coverage was $ 1,669, up 68% over the decade, but not significantly different from the previous two years, when the deductible was $ 1,644. in 2020 and $ 1,655 in 2019.

Eighty-five percent of workers now have a franchise; Ten years ago, that figure was 74%. Health spending has slowed during the pandemic as people delay or avoid care that is not essential. Half of large employers with 200 or more workers said workers’ health care use was roughly what they expected in the most recent quarter. Almost a third said usage was lower than expected, and 18% said it was higher, according to the survey.

At Thundermist Health Center, fewer people sought health care last year, so the self-funded health plan, which pays employee claims directly rather than using insurance for that purpose, has fallen into disuse. below his planned spending, Farrell said.

This turned out to be good news for the employees, whose contribution to their plan has not changed. “This year was the first year in a very long time that we haven’t had to change our rates,” said Farrell.

The survey was conducted between January and July 2021.

Michelle Andrews,

Kaiser Health News (TNS)

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