How COVID-19 Will Transform Your Health Benefits Strategy

Nancy Ryerson, with Fern Health, offers predictions about how benefits strategies will need to change to reflect how we operate in a post-COVID-19 world.

With so many questions to answer around COVID-19, a company’s health benefits strategy is unlikely to be at the top of most to-do lists for human resource (HR) leaders. At the same time, the pandemic is transforming how we work and access medical care. And while social distancing regulations won’t last forever, what employees and job seekers need and look for in a benefits package going forward is likely to reflect what we’ve experienced and learned during this time.

Here are a few predictions of how benefits strategies will need to change to reflect how we operate in a post-COVID-19 world, from addressing immediate health care needs to continuing to use telemedicine to increase access and reduce costs. In uncertain times, creating a strong benefits strategy can help support employees now and in the future.

Prediction: Controlling health care costs will be even more of a focus than usual.

U.S. employers could see their health care costs increase by 7% this year because of coronavirus testing and treatment, according to a new analysis from Willis Towers Watson. That’s on top of the 5% increase in costs experts were already expecting. In response, employers in particular will be interested in reducing costs in other areas through preventive care programs and other approaches. Telemedicine will also offer a way to reduce costs by diverting members from more expensive settings, such as the emergency room. Research also shows that virtual care can encourage members to seek care rather than avoid it, which can help prevent more costly care down the road.

Prediction: Telemedicine benefits will be important to current and prospective employees.

Telemedicine has been available for some time, but adoption has traditionally been low. But with COVID-19 restrictions, many people have had little choice but to use these services. After this experience, telemedicine benefits will become increasingly important to both job seekers and employees. Those who tried a service during the pandemic may have liked the convenience and want to have the option in the future. Members who use virtual psychologists or physical therapists may want to continue with their providers when changing companies. The pandemic has increased awareness of the benefits of telehealth, and job seekers also will be interested in these benefits.

Prediction: Employers will look for holistic solutions that support mental health.

The COVID-19 crisis has also sparked conversations around mental health access. In these stressful times, it’s common to feel anxious or depressed. Even without social distancing measures in place, mental health care is challenging to come by in many parts of the country. Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. lack a single psychiatrist. After the pandemic, employers will look for convenient, effective mental health treatment options, including those that are available virtually.

Prediction: Employers will also be more focused on comorbid conditions.

Another way to reduce health care costs is to focus attention on comorbid conditions. For example, chronic pain and depression occur together 30% to 50% of the time. And when they occur together, they raise health care costs by 79%. Because comorbidities increase health care costs more than individual conditions do on their own, finding solutions that can help employees with multiple conditions will be a priority.

Prediction: Employees will need care for chronic conditions they weren’t able to address under COVID-19 restrictions.

With health care resources directed toward treating those diagnosed with COVID-19 and many people discouraged from seeking in-person care for other non-emergencies, there will be a bottleneck of demand for common chronic conditions. For example, under normal circumstances, one in four people visit the doctor each year for back pain. When life starts to return to normal, doctors, physical therapists, and other medical professionals are going to be overwhelmed with pent-up demand for a range of conditions. Again, telemedicine services such as those for musculoskeletal pain can step in to provide employees a way of more easily accessing care.

The pandemic has reshaped how we live and work, and its impact will extend beyond when social distancing restrictions are lifted. This has been a challenging time for everyone, but the lessons learned around the value of virtual care and mental health support can serve to improve health benefits strategies going forward.


Nancy Ryerson is a health care writer with a passion for employee benefits and engagement. She is senior marketing manager at Fern Health, a digital health company that provides virtual musculoskeletal pain programs through employers. Prior to Fern, she covered patient centricity in clinical trials at Antidote and the patient experience at The Michael J. Fox Foundation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University.

This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal or tax advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the stance of Institutional Shareholder Services or its affiliates.