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Health Benefits Will Snag Center Stage Beyond 2020

For some time now in the total rewards space, benefits have often played second fiddle to compensation. Generally, employers feature their compensation packages to entice talent and most job seekers are lured by an attractive salary figure instead of a remarkable health-care plan.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the tables and underscored the immense importance of health care and benefits for employers. Kumar Kymal, managing director, global head of compensation and benefits at The Bank of New York (BNY) Mellon, said during WorldatWork’s “Total Resilience Virtual Conference & Exhibition” that he believes this will extend beyond the pandemic and health care and benefits will become more important in attracting and retaining talent.

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Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of the Business Group on Health (BGH), said she agrees with Kymal’s assessment, while noting that she’s obviously a bit biased.

“Health and benefits have always been a key component of (employers’) workforce strategy. So, how they recruit, retain and the overall value proposition are very strongly correlated with the programs they deploy in the health and well-being space,” Kelsay said. “The pandemic has underscored that significantly. If an employer didn’t already believe that health and well-being had a direct impact on their workforce, they most certainly do now.”

In dissecting the benefits space itself, Kelsay said a few trends have emerged during the pandemic that she expects to continue into the future. Telehealth has become much more prominent since March, as providers are encouraging people to avoid an office visit if they can to limit the chance of the virus spreading.  

“By using virtual care for much regular, necessary medical care, and deferring elective procedures or annual checkups, we free up medical staff and equipment needed for those who become seriously ill from COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Lee H. Schwamm in the Harvard Health Blog. “Additionally, by not congregating in small spaces like waiting rooms, we thwart the ability of the virus to hop from one person to another. Keeping people apart is called ‘social distancing.’ Keeping health-care providers apart from patients and other providers is ‘medical distancing.’ Telehealth is one strategy to help us accomplish this.”

There had been an uptick in telehealth pre-pandemic, Kelsay said, and WorldatWork’s “2019 Inventory of Total Rewards Programs & Practices” survey found that 88% of organizations offered telemedicine services in 2019. The utilization of the service, however, is extremely low in comparison, as Mercer’s “National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans” found that just 9% of employees used the service in 2019. This has changed dramatically in the past six months though, Kelsay said.

“It’s accelerated at an astronomical rate,” Kelsay said. “Consumers have gotten much more comfortable using that modality, as well as providers. In the past, providers might have felt it was an inferior way of treating their patients and providing care, but a lot of health-care practitioners are realizing that it is effective and maybe in some ways more optimal. Hopefully these things will remain in a post-pandemic environment as well.” 

Kelsay said much work has been done by employers around mental health and well-being during the pandemic, and for good reason. While mental health was a growing problem in the United States ahead of COVID-19, it’s been exacerbated in the past six months. Employers have leaned on heavy communication of their resources in these areas, including employee assistance programs and various well-being tools to help employees cope with the stress and anxiety of isolation and health concerns.

Kymal said mental health and overall well-being will become more of a priority for leaders and organizations could rethink how they reward lower-waged workers who were deemed essential during the pandemic.

“We will continue getting more investment (in mental health and well-being) and it’s something companies that invested during the pandemic will continue leading with,” he said. “There’s also going to be a shift in the thinking of the criticality of lower-paid workers and potentially the conversation around living wage and doing the right thing for employees who have shown to have more risk.” 

While Kelsay is bullish on COVID-19 advances in the telemedicine, mental health and well-being areas, she expressed concern over further consolidation taking place in the health-care industry. The industry has been one of the hardest hit financially by the pandemic, which could lead to health systems merging with one another to remain viable. Kelsay said this consolidation leads to less options for consumers and tends to yield no improvement in patient experience or cost. Kelsay said there’s also concern providers could be incentivized to recommend costly, unnecessary procedures in order to recoup losses.

“There are very real economic issues these providers face and we understand that, we just hope the outcome isn’t that consolidation increases considerably or if it does increase those things are lost in terms of the quality of cost and outcome,” Kelsay said. “It could be very harmful to the system at large.”

About the Author

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Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.


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