Navigating the Benefits Landscape: Trends in 2021

benefits-trends-2021

It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the U.S. health care system into uncharted waters. People delayed or canceled medical visits and procedures out of caution, and overall health care spending and behavior changed considerably in 2020. In addition, a slew of legislative changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis altered the landscape of employer-sponsored benefits. Uncertainty surrounding the ongoing impact of the pandemic is making it tough for anyone to move ahead with confidence, and employers and brokers may still be wondering how to prepare for the rest of 2021.

We want to help you prepare for what lies ahead. In this article, we share industry reports that cover anticipated spending and benefits trends for 2021, and provide guidance for employers and brokers that may feel like a ship navigating choppy waters.

But First, a 2020 Rewind…

COVID-19 Legislation that Impacted Employer-Sponsored Benefits The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many legislative changes that affected employer-sponsored benefits. You can review a recap of those legislative changes in our previous blog, plus download our handy 2020 Consumer Benefits Legislation Checklist to ensure you have those new regulations at your fingertips.

Trend #1

A Stronger Focus on Employee Health and Wellness

Your benefits strategy should include offerings that can support employee wellness across the board: financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It sounds like a tall order but really doesn’t require much from employers. The 2019 – 2020 Willis Towers and Watson global health care survey found that 57% of employees say their benefits are more critical than ever, and 64% would like a moderate number of benefits choices—they want flexibility without feeling overburdened.

Employers and brokers should continue to look for ways to fill the gaps in coverage and support employees who may be facing more personal and financial challenges well into 2021, resulting from social distancing measures, increased isolation, economic downturn, uncertainty about the future, and more demanding roles for parents and caregivers. Providing health advocacy services, expanding mental health support, and offering an employee assistance program (EAP) are all ways to assist employees enduring increased stress due to the pandemic’s far-reaching impacts on all facets of life. Lifestyle spending accounts, dependent care FSAs, tax-advantaged accounts, and other voluntary benefits can go a long way to supporting employees’ health and wellness.

A crisis relief account is a type of lifestyle spending account designed to help employees affected by a crisis pay for personal expenses like groceries, rent, mortgage payments, utilities, dependent care, home office expenses, and other bills during an unexpected emergency. These accounts saw renewed popularity in 2020, and the ConnectYourCare team saw an uptick in clients inquiring about how to implement lifestyle benefits accounts as a way to support employees facing unexpected hardships during the COVID-19 crisis. This is a trend that may continue to play a role in 2021.

Trend #2

FSAs and HSAs May See Higher Engagement Rates to Offset Medical Costs

Tax-advantaged accounts like FSAs and HSAs can offset rising medical costs for employees, and those savings can encourage them to be proactive and pragmatic about their health and spending. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) latest Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey found that those enrolled in an HDHP with an HSA were more likely to check the cost of doctor’s visits and procedures, ask their doctors about other treatment options, and create a health care expense budget than those enrolled in traditional plans. This suggests that participants in consumer-directed health care plans may be more conscientious about the health care choices they make, taking more of a cost-benefit analysis approach to their decision making.

Because of the pandemic, more people may be prioritizing preventive care, which includes buying products like thermometers, blood pressure monitors, and pulse oximeters to check oxygen levels. In addition to an increased focus on managing health at home, 2020 saw a huge demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, personal hygiene and sanitizing supplies, household items like toilet paper, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. In July L.E.K. Consulting conducted a survey on the COVID-19 impact on U.S. consumer intended health care usage and found that more than half of respondents intend to keep these types of products in stock at home going forward because of the shortages during the pandemic.

The CARES act made it easier for people to purchase OTC medications without a letter from a doctor using HSA and FSA funds, which helps consumers by removing a barrier to access. Other services and products people can cover with tax-free HSA and FSA dollars include:

  • Flu shots

  • Telehealth/mental health services

  • Alternative and holistic therapies like massage and acupuncture (with a physician’s letter of necessity)

  • Cold/flu OTC medications like acetaminophen
  • COBRA insurance premiums

Now employees can also use FSA and HSA funds to purchase at-home COVID-19 tests. For many people who struggled to get a COVID-19 test at the start of the pandemic or for those who may prefer to have a test on hand in case of an emergency, this kit could come as a great relief!

Employers and brokers should continue to educate members about how to utilize their benefits accounts. Participants may not be aware of the ways that they can take advantage of their tax-free benefits accounts to cover medical costs, including preventive care products and services, and COVID-19 diagnostic tools.

Trend #3

Telehealth Demand Will Likely Continue

Of the many uncertainties, one emerging trend from 2020 that will continue throughout 2021 is the rise of telehealth. Because of social distancing safety measures and concerns about spreading the virus, many health care providers stopped in-person visits and began to offer telehealth services. A survey from FAIR Health reported a 4,347% increase in telehealth use across the country between March 2019 and March 2020, and it is highly likely that telehealth usage will continue to be in demand throughout 2021.

90% of respondents in L.E.K. Consulting’s health care consumer survey believe that telehealth usage will remain the same or increase in 2021, and nearly half of respondents who used telehealth services made up their missed in-person appointments this way.

Telehealth was integral in 2020 for those who were worried about or unable to see their doctors in person, and many may continue to rely on telehealth for doctor’s appointments, counseling sessions, and more, in the future. Employers should ensure that they are clearly communicating their telehealth policy or should educate employees about how telehealth fits into their benefits plan throughout the 2021 plan year.

Trend #4

Technology Will Remain Critical for Benefits Enrollment and Education

Social distancing measures pushed organizations to adopt remote work policies in 2020, and those will likely continue well into 2021. Technology is key for communicating essential information to employees working from home, and the 2020 open enrollment period only underscored that point. Many employers had to scramble to come up with virtual solutions that would support benefits education, selection, and enrollment online rather than in-person. According to Lynne Mobley, ConnectYourCare Director of Client Success who works with a range of ConnectYourCare clients, “A lot of feedback pointed to the fact that virtual open enrollment was successful in many cases, so there is a strong likelihood that we will see the industry move in that direction.”

Virtual enrollment is a 2020 trend that will continue to evolve, so employers and brokers should look to leverage technology for benefits education and enrollment in 2021 and beyond. ConnectYourCare recently conducted a survey of more than 130 employer benefits teams and found that more than 57% of employers plan to add more virtual enrollment events and 60% will work to reduce the number of in-person events in the future based on their experience in 2020.

Employers and brokers should ensure that members are aware of online portals for benefits accounts they can access to track enrollment status, submit reimbursements, and manage contributions and spending. Check what technology platforms, products, or services any vendors you partner with may offer. These could come in the form of account education resources, support services, member portals, payment cards, apps, or anything else that can make it easier for participants to take charge of their health care. No matter what happens in 2021, technology will continue to be integral—embracing it sooner than later will set your organization up for success in the long run!

Conclusion

With legislative updates and medical spending trends from 2020 on your radar, you should be well positioned to sail through 2021 with more security knowing that you are prepared to weather any storms. While you can’t always see what’s lies beyond the horizon, employers and brokers can still develop a sound benefits strategy regardless of what happens next by knowing these expected trends in 2021!

Want to learn about ConnectYourCare’s technology and benefits solutions?

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By |2021-01-21T10:16:12-05:00January 21st, 2021|Brokers, Employer Posts, Legislation|
Disclaimer: ConnectYourCare does not provide tax or legal advice. This information is not intended and should not be taken as tax or legal advice. Any tax or legal information in this notice is merely a summary of ConnectYourCare’s understanding and interpretation of some of the current tax regulations and is not exhaustive. You should consult your tax advisor or legal counsel for advice and information concerning your particular situation before making any decisions.
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