COVID-19 Forcing Employers to Evolve Health & Wellness Benefits

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic has brought comprehensive changes to the workforce, employers are adapting their approaches to health and wellness benefits.
  • Willis Towers Watson surveyed 816 employers, representing 12 million workers, in late April, and found that 47% are enhancing health benefits, and 45% plan to expand their wellness offerings.
  • Many (64%) of the employers surveyed believe the pandemic will have either a moderate or large impact on workers’ well-being, leading them to put a focus on these benefits. More than three-quarters (77%) said they were intending to either begin offering or grow their virtual mental health offerings.
  • In addition, 60% said they were enhancing benefits for physical health through technology—such as offering virtual at-home workouts.
  • Much of the energy and focus is simply on making workers aware of the programs their employers already offer ( Employers have reported in large numbers that members were not always up to date on the health benefits available to them).
  • Higher adoption of telehealth and other digital health tools is likely here to stay. Even if utilization rates decline as the pandemic wanes, it is likely that many employees will continue to use these platforms.

Meanwhile, UnitedHealth as well as other Insurers are offering discounts.

Several of the U.S.’s biggest for-profit insurers will give money back to customers and cut upfront costs for care and prescriptions, after they got an unexpected windfall because patients delayed normal medical services during the pandemic. UnitedHealth Group Inc., the nation’s largest insurer, said it will rebate premiums to some commercial customers and waive cost-sharing for Medicare members as part of a $1.5 billion pandemic assistance program. Separately, Cigna Corp. said its pharmacy unit will cap the costs of some drugs for people who have lost health insurance. Earlier this week, Humana Inc. announced it would waive cost-sharing for Medicare members to see primary care doctors for the rest of the year.

The pandemic and the social distancing to quell it have cost millions of people their jobs and health insurance, slashed income for many families, and resulted in widespread delays of medical care as hospitals were cleared to make room for COVID-19 patients. Insurers, however, have been experiencing a sudden, short-term increase in profits as medical procedures and visits were canceled. UnitedHealthcare said it would credit between 5% and 20% of a plan’s premium cost for June. The rebate will apply to the company’s fully insured employer and individual health plans, which cover about 8 million people. It doesn’t apply to the roughly 19 million people in self-insured health plans common among large employers, where UnitedHealth acts as administrator but doesn’t bear the financial risk.

The $1.5 billion amounts to 44% of the company’s first-quarter net income. Most insurers have waived cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing and care and sped up payments to medical providers. As the pandemic’s effects ripple through the economy, however, the health-insurance industry may face pressure to do more.