Emerging Strategies to Help Employers Build More Innovative Health Benefit Packages

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By Dr. Donna O’Shea, Chief Medical Officer of Population Health, UnitedHealthcare


While encouraging a healthier workforce has long been a priority for many employers, several recent trends have sparked a renewed emphasis for some organizations. A competitive labor market, high inflation, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have many employers focusing on offering more innovative benefit packages. The goal is to help attract and retain team members, spur productivity, and reduce the incidence of preventable medical events and costly chronic conditions.    

It’s time well spent, according to studies that show a healthier workforce may help improve productivity and bolster a company’s bottom line. In fact, work illness and injury cost U.S. employers $225 billion each year. With medical care ranking as the second largest expense behind salaries, it is vital employers help maximize the value of their health benefits. 

During an era marked by remote work and fewer in-person meetings, employers are confronting numerous new challenges when it comes to supporting the health of their employees. At the same time, advances in technology and changes in consumer preferences have paved the way for more personalized programs in connection to health benefit plans. 

While many employees are now making benefits decisions for 2023 during open enrollment, employers in Pennsylvania are already making health benefit decisions for 2024 and beyond. Here are five emerging health benefit strategies employers can consider:

Reward Employees for Wellness Activities. Most U.S. employers offer well-being programs, and some include financial incentives for meeting certain health targets, such as reaching a daily steps goal or maintaining a healthy body mass index. To make these initiatives more appealing and engaging, some employers are incentivizing a growing number of healthy activities, including filling out a health survey, selecting a primary care physician, getting a biometric screening, meeting certain movement goals, or tracking sleeping. Plus, instead of virtual coins or rewards that can only be used to help pay for medical care, some programs are starting to enable enrollees to annually earn gift cards worth hundreds of dollars annually — and spend them in any way. Wearable devices and digital fitness apps can also play an important role, providing employees with daily feedback on their activity levels while helping provide access to live or on-demand fitness classes.       

Expand Access to New Types of Virtual Care. Nearly 90% of Americans surveyed said they want to continue using virtual care for non-urgent health needs, while76% of employers grew their virtual care offerings in response to the pandemic. Virtual care, also called telehealth, has expanded from treating urgent care issues, such as allergies, rashes, or seasonal flu, to now providing access to other types of care, including primary, specialty and behavioral. Company and human resources leaders should continue to assess and refine virtual care options currently available to employees through their health plan, local care providers, or other virtual service providers. Leaders can also look to add emerging virtual care resources such as those for physical therapy, dermatology, and women’s health.  

Help Address Social Determinants. A recent survey of large employers found nearly 80% already have or plan to take steps to help address social determinants of health, such as access to affordable housing, nutritious food, and reliable transportation. Research shows that social determinants of health – more so than what happens in the doctor’s office – may influence up to 80% of a person’s health. That’s why some employers are using predictive analytics to proactively identify employees who may be dealing with social issues, and then connect them with low- or no-cost community resources, which may help them save on utility and internet bills, childcare costs, and even home repairs. Other strategies being pursued by employers include funding “lifestyle accounts” to help pay for gas, monthly debit cards or onsite pantries for nutritious foods, and “call a friend” wellness initiatives to help address social isolation.     

Add a Plan with Upfront Pricing. Some health plans are doing away with deductibles and instead giving employees first-dollar coverage, coupled with access to upfront pricing information before they schedule medical appointments. In doing so, these plans may help remove financial barriers to care and encourage people to select quality, cost-efficient health care providers and facilities. In many instances, employers are offering a traditional health plan alongside one of these newer options, which may help reduce the total cost of care for employers and lower out-of-pocket costs for employees.  

Evaluate Coverage Options for Intermittent Workers. More than 59 million Americans are part of the “intermittent workforce,” meaning they are not employed in traditional full-time roles. The intermittent workforce includes part-time and seasonal hourly W-2 employees and full- and part-time W-2-contingent contractors employed by staffing firms. To help recruit and retain these workers in a competitive job market, employers can now provide access to health benefit options by addinglimited medical plans. When compared to traditional medical benefits, these plans can offer lower monthly premiums and the elimination of deductibles and copayments for virtual visits. It’s worth noting, while these plans are designed to help provide important access to medical care at more affordable prices, coverage restrictions will apply to some medical services. 

Employers are in a unique position to help improve the health and of employees. By considering these emerging health benefit trends, employers may help support the well-being of employees now and in the future.

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