The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made employee benefits more vital than ever. Employers spend millions of dollars each year on employee benefits, with benefits often accounting for one-third of employee compensation costs. COVID-19 is presenting unique challenges for employers and HR professionals, but employers can leverage their benefits offerings to help employees through this pandemic.
This two-part blog series will address benefits issues employers may encounter during the pandemic, with this first post addressing benefits communications, health care benefits, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), telehealth, mental health and wellness programs.
Employees often are not all that interested in benefits information until they need it. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, employers are finding that employees are becoming increasingly interested in:
- How their benefits work;
- What they cover; and
- How they can help.
Effective employer communication is key to helping employees figure out what benefits can help the most and enabling them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.
Emphasize the benefits you offer and make sure your employees know about:
- The benefits that are available to them;
- The details of the plans; and
- Where to obtain additional information and guidance.
Since people process information in different ways, consider the different ways of communicating how employee benefits can help during this stressful time period. Communication methods may include emails, texts, social media, webinars, virtual one-on-one meetings and announcements on an intranet or benefits portal.
Benefits vendors are also a key resource that employers can use. Vendors are usually ready, willing and able to help HR and benefits professionals educate employees about benefits and may be a key resource during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health Care Benefits
Health care insurance is generally the benefit that is considered most critical to employees even in the best of times. Employees value health care benefits because they soften the financial impact of a catastrophic, unanticipated illness or injury and are going to be depended on during a global outbreak.
To further help employees during this time, an employer needs to emphasize how the health coverage they offer can help employees during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, make sure employees are aware that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) require group health plans to provide coverage for coronavirus testing without imposing cost sharing (e.g., deductibles, copayments and coinsurance).
Additionally, the CARES Act provides for rapid coverage of preventive services and vaccines for the coronavirus once they become available. It also expands qualified medical expenses.
A law that has been brought to the forefront of many HR professionals’ minds since the COVID-19 threat emerged is HIPAA. The law was created to better protect employees’ health insurance when they change or leave a job and to ensure the privacy and security of individuals’ protected health information (PHI).
HIPAA does not specifically apply to employers when they are functioning in the role of employer. However, if an employer sponsors a health care plan for its employees, it may be required to comply with HIPAA privacy rules since the health plan is likely a covered entity.
The use of telehealth (or telemedicine) is an area that has continued to grow in the last several years as a key employee benefit. Employees can use telehealth benefits from home instead of going to a doctor’s office or clinic, which has proved useful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, employees are using telehealth to help them decide what to do if they have coronavirus symptoms and are unsure about the next steps they should take. Telehealth is also a good way to see health care providers during the outbreak for other medical issues.
If telehealth is available to employees, encourage them to use it and let them know how valuable it can be. Emphasize how it can help keep them safe and healthy.
The coronavirus is causing a host of employees to worry about their health, jobs and finances, and social distancing is likely making many people feel anxious, insecure and disconnected. It also may be taking a toll on their mental health and their ability to work productively and efficiently.
In light of this pandemic, it’s important for employers to take an active role in addressing and managing employee mental health. Remind employees about any employee assistance programs (EAPs) available to them. EAPs generally provide access to mental health professionals and counseling services. Although providers may not be physically accessible for appointments at this time, virtual sessions or telehealth may be an option.
It’s also critical to make sure EAPs and benefit providers are adequately equipped to address new mental health challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Employers use wellness programs to supplement their employee benefit programs in an effort to prevent illness and lower health care costs by motivating employees to adopt and maintain healthy behaviors. Employers should make sure they are using any applicable wellness programs they may have to help with coronavirus issues.
More Coronavirus Benefits Considerations to Come
Stay tuned for our second blog post on benefits issues employers are facing during this pandemic. It will discuss:
- COBRA and benefits continuation issues;
- Benefits during furloughs;
- Unemployment insurance;
- Retirement benefits; and
- Financial wellness benefits.