Voluntary Benefits Provide Much-Needed Help During COVID-19 Crisis

Plan sponsors should consider an off-cycle voluntary benefits enrollment and prepare for a workforce that will pay more attention to voluntary benefits in the future.

Benefitfocus in Charleston, South Carolina, provides a cloud-based software program uniting health, wealth and lifestyle benefits on a single technology platform. Misty Guinn, director of Benefits & Wellness at the firm, says voluntary benefits can be very useful to employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She says telehealth options may be most helpful at this time to ensure employees are not forgoing medical care. Some employer group health plans have telehealth services as part of their offering, but some do not. And telehealth can be underutilized by health plan participants because they don’t want to pay the copay, Guinn says. But for those plans that don’t have it in their offering, telehealth options—such as Doctors on Demand, which Guinn cites as an example—may be offered as a voluntary benefit.

She points out that virtual office visits with psychiatrists may be a great need right now with COVID-19 also being a mental health crisis as families are stuck at home and many may be experiencing job loss.

Guinn explains that telehealth as a voluntary benefit could be employee-paid, or employers may decide to sponsor it or provide subsidies to lower costs for employees.

Considering voluntary benefits related to wealth, Guinn notes that short-term loan benefits offered by employers from providers such as Kashable may be used by employees instead of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act distribution and loan options that may affect long-term savings. “The difference between a voluntary short-term loan benefit and a payday loan is that since the voluntary benefit is offered by employers, employees can get a better interest rate,” Guinn says.

She adds that employers may offer financial coaching platforms through which employees can receive tax advice that employers shouldn’t be giving and tips about how to increase savings now that discretionary spending may be lower while employees shelter in place. In addition, student loan refinancing benefits can help ease financial burdens for cash-strapped employees.

While employees are staying at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, certain voluntary benefits can help with their lifestyles. For example, Guinn notes that some employers offer concierge benefits such as Shipt grocery delivery at a discounted rate so employees can have essentials delivered. In addition, physical wellness offerings such as Wellbeats help employees practice good health habits. Employees can use physical wellness apps to get ideas for workouts or healthy meals.

“The good thing is [all] these voluntary benefits are open year-round, not just during open enrollment,” Guinn says. Employees can opt-in at any time.

But there are other employee-paid voluntary benefits that may be helpful and for which employers may want to consider an off-cycle enrollment period, says Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at DirectPath, a health care consultant for large employers, in Boston. She says voluntary benefits are often ignored because, employees are typically concerned with basic coverage during the annual open enrollment period. Doing an off-cycle enrollment will help them focus on just voluntary benefits.

Critical illness coverage, hospital indemnity plans and cancer coverage are just a few of the benefits employees may need to look at now. The first two are important for those worried about getting COVID-19, Buckey says. She notes that employees may also want to consider “buying up” their life insurance or disability coverage. “The current situation brings into focus what is available and may be needed to protect employees and their families now and in the future,” Buckey says.

She points out that since these voluntary benefits are employee-paid, they are not Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) plans, and since benefits providers handle administrative processes, an off-cycle enrollment is possible and can be done more quickly than annual open enrollment. However, “it’s not as easy as flipping a switch,” Buckey says. Employers need to talk to their providers and/or benefits brokers to determine which benefits to offer during an off-cycle enrollment and when. Payroll providers will need to be apprised as well to prepare them for new benefit payment deductions.

Buckey recommends telephonic support for enrollment. She notes that many providers have sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) enrollment tolls to help employees select benefits that are right for them, but she says , right now, employees are looking for human contact. “If telephone appointments are scheduled at employees’ convenience, they can have spouses or significant others on the call and have the opportunity to ask about health care needs and financial concerns specific to their families,” she adds. “It provides more personalized support than even the most sophisticated AI program can give them.” And, for employees new to a voluntary benefit, a support person can walk them through what it is and what it pays or covers.

Guinn points out that since employees don’t have to wait until the fall to enroll in many benefits, and employees’ needs can change at any time, communications should be tied into meaningful moments—what Benefitfocus calls “smart moments.” For example, right now, scammers are using COVID-19 to try to get individuals’ personal information, so employers could communicate about their identity theft protection offering.

In addition, April is stress awareness month, so employers can use that message to communicate about their employee assistance programs (EAPs), Guinn adds.

“It may seem cynical or opportunistic to take advantage of this right now when so many employers are shutting down and employees are losing jobs, but for those employers staying open, it can make employees feel really valued,” Buckey says. She and Guinn say they believe voluntary benefits will be valued differently by both employers and employees following the COVID-19 crisis.

“I believe in a comprehensive and innovative benefit package, especially in a multigenerational workforce. Just having core benefits doesn’t work anymore,” Guinn says. “This time shows the importance of planning ahead for the unexpected and making sure you have peace of mind in case something does happen.”

She says she believes employees will take a deeper look at the resources employers make available. “Employers will have to do a better job of stressing the importance of voluntary benefits. I like to use testimonials, real life stories, and I think we will see more of that after this crisis,” Guinn says.