Pandemic creating employee health crisis study warns

Bosses have been warned that the impact of the COVID-19 on the health of staff and the delivery of healthcare will last for years to come.

The sixth annual, MMB Health Trends: 2020 Insurer Survey published by Mercer Marsh benefits (MMB), has warned  disruption to the delivery of healthcare and lasting changes to work patterns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will have a major impact on both the cost and design of employer-provided health benefits.

The survey found that 68% of insurers expect increased medical claims driven by COVID-19 diagnostics, care and treatment.

Insurers also said they expect increases in medical costs to continue to vastly outstrip inflation in 2021. In 2019, insurers reported cost increases of 9.7%, which was just under 3 times the rate of inflation. In 2020, they expect a rise in medical costs of 9.5%, which is roughly 3.5 times the inflation rate. For 2021, 90% of insurers expect the trend to sustain or increase.

Commenting on the findings, Hervé Balzano, President, Health at Mercer and Mercer Marsh Benefits International Leader, said: “COVID-19 has had profound effects on all parts of society and the economy, including healthcare. With an expected rebound in elective treatments deferred during lockdown, a rise in negative health issues related to remote working and sedentary lifestyle, including musculoskeletal and mental health issues, and ongoing concerns about the long-term physical and mental health implications of COVID-19, we expect medical costs to continue to increase.”

Mr Balzano continued: “In order to meet the new challenges posed by remote working and contain expanding costs, companies need to radically rethink the range of benefits they offer their employees and the way in which they deliver them.”

The survey added the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragility of current employee benefits systems, many of which are paper based and cannot be accessed or managed remotely. With many employers now looking for benefit providers that can offer additional benefits such as mental health, preventive care, and an enhanced range of digital and online services, insurers are increasingly looking to broaden their suite of solutions

It found an increase in the number of insurers offering virtual health consultations, or “telemedicine”, with 59% saying it was an active part of their current approach to plan management, up from 38% in 2019. Furthermore, 55% of insurers now cover preventive health initiatives, such as screenings, with an additional 20% indicating they are experimenting or have developed plans to initiate this within the next 24 months. Employer-sponsored plans will continue to play an important role in providing people with the health services they need. For example, just over half of insurers expect their employer-sponsored plans will cover COVID-19 vaccinations, especially in Latin America.

The survey also found remaining gaps in mental health support, despite the increase in demand seen during the pandemic. For example, virtual mental health counselling is still not widespread, with only one-third of insurers offering it globally while 32% of insurers do not provide plans covering any mental health services. This is despite the fact that in all regions, insurers rate private, employer-sponsored health care systems as more effective than public ones in providing the needed prevention, diagnostics and treatment of mental health disorders.

Chris Bailey, Partner and UK Head of Corporate Consulting, Mercer Marsh Benefits, added: “The severe disruption in the health system caused by the pandemic has meant many people have been unable to access treatment for key conditions such as cancer, musculoskeletal and mental health issues. We can expect to see a bounce back from this disruption in 2021. Whilst the return of treatment is welcomed and much needed, releasing the backlog of demand is likely to drive up costs. This will mean further challenges for companies already focused on managing cost and keeping afloat in a tough economy.”