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Navigating Through Benefits Decisions in a COVID-19 World

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the working world and the impact on health benefits has been particularly significant.


As the federal government moved quickly to respond by passing legislation such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it increased the burden on employers to remain on top of these developments while adequately communicating them to their employees.

There are several provisions that lower cost barriers to receiving care. For example, the CARES Act clarifies for employers that HDHPs may provide first-dollar coverage for COVID-19 testing and future immunizations. It also allows first-dollar coverage for telehealth through Dec. 31, 2020. Further, it reinstates over-the-counter drugs as eligible expenses without a prescription in FSAs, HSAs and HRAs and allows coverage of menstrual care products.

Meanwhile, the FFCRA provides a paid leave mandate for businesses with 500 or less employees, among other provisions.

“Employers should communicate clearly to employees how their plan will adopt these provisions and when,” said Karen Frost, vice president of health strategy and solutions at Alight Solutions.

Many organizations are going beyond the federal leave actions. WorldatWork’s “COVID-19 Employer Response Survey” found that 36% of the 1,510 employers surveyed are making plan changes and increasing access and 26% are creating/providing additional resources to at-risk populations. Among those employers that are making plan changes, most (60%) are waiving co-payments or deductibles. Additionally, 30% are implementing telemedicine and 30% are changing how prescriptions can be accessed.

“As our health-care system rushes to contain the virus and treat those affected, people are facing new, unfamiliar challenges concerning their everyday health and well-being — and many employers are answering the call for help,” Frost said. “Early on, we saw a large number of employers provide extended sick leave or PTO to employees affected by the pandemic, whether they’re quarantined due to possible exposure, have symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19, or are unable to work because schools are closed.”

An area of health benefits that has spiked during the pandemic is teleheath. Telemedicine platforms are uniquely positioned for a health crisis such as this when it’s recommended that patients who could be cared for at home don’t go to the doctor so as not to increase the likelihood they contract and spread the virus and contribute to clogging up a health-care system that is already stretched thin.

“The spike in telehealth includes e-visits with their own providers, as well as telehealth organizations that are included with their health plans or provided on a standalone basis by their employers,” Frost said. “This trend should continue after the crisis has subsided, as employees are realizing the convenience and access provided by telehealth.”

While many organizations have pledged no layoffs during the pandemic or have actually seen a boom in business during it, layoffs and furloughs have been unavoidable and prevalent for many employers. However, Frost said many employers are still finding a way to assist those employees with their health benefits.

“We’re seeing employers treating furloughed employees in one of two ways: 1) similar to employees on leaves of absence where active employment and benefits continue; and 2) similar to layoffs/terminations where wages end and benefits continue through COBRA,” Frost said. “In situations where there’s a continuation of benefits, many employers keep contributing toward health coverage — typically 70% to 80% of the premium — and some are also covering employee contributions.

About the Author

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Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.

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