Virtual care, employee burnout and expanded access to mental health are top priorities for large employers next year, according to a new survey.
Out of the 136 large employers that provide health benefits to 8.9 million workers, 87% have accelerated initiatives to improve mental health access and services this year and 84% have prioritized expanding virtual health services, a Business Group on Health survey on large employers' health benefit strategies reveals.
"We've been hearing a shift from employers and their partners that virtual care isn't this standalone thing on the side, it's becoming integrated into the care experience," said Brenna Shebel, vice president of Business Group on Health during a news conference on Wednesday.
Ninety-four percent of large employers expect a surge in medical costs as workers who delayed care during the COVID-19 pandemic seek treatments. Nearly as many big businesses, 91%, are concerned about long-term mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, the polling data published Wednesday reveal. Almost half of large companies also expect more disability claims due to employees experiencing long-term COVID-19 symptoms.
Looking ahead, 72% of employers with on-site clinics plan to offer COVID-19 vaccinations, 69% plan to offer primary care and 90% plan to offer acute care.
The intensified focus on mental wellbeing will make 2022 the first year that a majority of employers create an anti-stigma campaign raising awareness about mental health issues.
"Employers have been working many years to try to combat the negative connotation with seeking mental health treatment, having a mental health condition, or looking for emotional support, and they're not backing down," Shebel said.
The share of big companies offering no- or low-cost virtual mental health services is expected to grow from 54% this year to 75% 2022. In 2022, 97% of employers will offer educational online resources, and 74% will hold manager trainings on recognizing signs of mental illness and how to direct employees to services and resources.
Resources may come in the form of meditation apps, articles, videos or webinars, Shebel said.
Beyond just mental health, 85% of employers believe virtual care will have a significant impact on how care is delivered moving forward.
Physical therapy is the digital health area projected to grow the most, from 34% of employers offering virtual physical therapy programs in 2021 to 77% planning to offer one in 2023. Virtual programs for fertility care, sleep, cardiac care and chronic kidney disease management are expected to proliferate as well.
More than half of large employers currently waive or have reduced cost sharing for telehealth services, and 54% have transitioned on-site clinic services to a virtual model.
Big employers also increasingly are focused on addressing social determinants of health, racism and financial inequities, and childcare needs. More of these companies also are expanding coverage for neurodiversity and transgnder health.
"Employers are viewing efforts related to social determinants as being a gateway for all health equity focus and driving systemic change," Business Group on Health President and CEO Ellen Kelsay said at the news conference.
Healthcare spending trends are also expected to shift in the coming years.
Employer contributions to health insurance premiums on average have increased from $9,463 in 2020 to $10,145 in 2021. Around 40% of employers offered wage-based cost sharing to help employees afford medical care this year.
The actual trend for health benefit spending was 0% in 2020, although some employers experienced negative trends as low as -12%. In 2021 and 2022, the healthcare trend is predicted to increase 6% each year as more employees begin seeking healthcare for non-COVID-19 related needs.
"There are many solutions out there that employers are exploring and have availed themselves of and rolled out to their workforce, because they want to make care accessible and convenient," Kelsay said.