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6 health benefits trends for 2021

Health insurance has always been a top priority for employees, and with so much economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, employers are working hard to avoid shifting more costs to employees. In fact, as a result of COVID-19, most employees think access to health benefits is more important than ever before. 

The pandemic has prompted the health care industry to transform and innovate at a rapid pace. It has also caused many people to prioritize their health and rethink how they find and receive care. This has created a shift in how people view their benefits, what they value, and what carriers can offer.

Every year, employers and brokers work diligently to shape health benefits packages to best support their employees or clients. Due to COVID-19, many employees’ health care needs may have changed, which is why companies will need to consider what makes sense for their employees and make necessary adjustments to their health care benefits. 

To bring more clarity to the complex and crowded landscape of health benefits, we’ve curated expert opinions from around the industry, and outlined the top health benefits trends that will inform health care decisions this year:  

1. Telehealth is here to stay

Telehealth usage was increasing before the pandemic, but many patients still preferred to visit the doctor’s office in person to receive care. During the first few months of the pandemic, telehealth usage skyrocketed, forcing some doctor’s offices to close to better prepare themselves for a new model of care delivery. Since the peak months of the pandemic, telehealth visits have declined slightly, but usage rates are still well above pre-pandemic levels. Previous concerns about telehealth efficacy, safety, and cost have mostly been quelled as more patients look to access health care at home. 

Specifically, consumers will look to continue telehealth care similarly to how they used it last year — for some preventive/primary care and behavioral health — but will also look for new types of offerings such as remote monitoring or chronic care. Responding to the increasing interest and adoption of telehealth services, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, in partnership with Doctor on Demand, recently launched an entirely virtual primary care plan in Connecticut, and plans to expand availability in the New England region into 2021 and 2022. 

Telehealth has played a critical role in care delivery throughout the pandemic and has made health care more accessible and convenient. “The move to telehealth has been transformative,” says Dr. Patricia Toro, MD, MPH, associate medical director for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

While the shift to telehealth can have its advantages, a core element that can prove to be challenging is access to technology. As more doctors seek to engage with their patients via telehealth, it will be important for the industry to monitor and ensure there is equitable access to telehealth. “Telehealth is sort of a double-edged sword. We’re going to see a better uptake in telehealth but we might also see widening health disparities, so that’s something to watch for,” says Toro. 


2. Digital health solutions will continue to be leveraged for ongoing engagement

COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation in many verticals, with health and well-being in the forefront. More than ever before, consumers are actively looking to digital health platforms to support their physical and emotional health, spurring innovation at health care companies to provide new offerings for a healthy lifestyle. 

Apps used for meditation, sleep tracking, and physical fitness will likely remain in high demand this year, as a number of digital health companies are proving to be adept at engaging and supporting individuals who are managing mental or physical health issues, as well as chronic conditions. Health insurers such as Harvard Pilgrim are partnering with many of these platforms and making them available to their member population. Popular apps such as the premium versions of Sanvello (which focuses on clinical techniques to help decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression), Ovia Health (a maternity and family health mobile solution supporting reproductive health, pregnancy, and parenthood), and Foodsmart by Zipongo (a personalized app that specializes in supporting meal planning with a diabetic population), are available to Harvard Pilgrim Health Care members as part of their coverage. 

3. Mental health continues to be prioritized 

COVID-19 and subsequent quarantine efforts have led to short- and long-term psychosocial and mental health implications. A recent report from Mental Health America indicates that high rates of anxiety and depression are expected to continue in the U.S. in 2021. It is anticipated that in addition to mental health challenges faced post-pandemic, usage and options will be more important than ever. 

Focusing on and supporting mental health is just as important as physical health. Employers are stepping up to expand health offerings to help employees prioritize mental health — for example, Starbucks recently announced that employees and their families will receive 20 free counseling sessions a year. Health plans typically offer a variety of mental and behavioral health resources, so it is important to explore what is available. For instance, in addition to behavioral health coverage for visits, Harvard Pilgrim members also have access to 24/7 support lines, behavioral health support, and the Sanvello mobile app, among others. 


4. A shift toward care delivery within the home

In addition to the rise of telehealth, an increasing senior population, and high COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, the demand for at-home health care is at an all-time high and continues rising at an exceptional rate – reimagining the old-fashioned doctor house calls for a modern age. 

The pandemic has put a greater emphasis on the need for alternative care delivery models for older or at-risk individuals, including telemedicine and in-home medical care. “Today, there are a lot more health care organizations reimagining care and how it is delivered — whether it is in a clinical or at-home setting,” says Toro. Medical, behavioral health, and palliative care, along with social services are all areas where at-home support is on the rise. The evolution of care from home has also had secondary benefits by helping drive innovation within a taxed health care system during surges of the pandemic. Because the pandemic has led to significant hospital capacity constraints, some hospitals have looked at the model as a way to treat COVID-19 patients. “One Midwest hospital took all of its COVID-19 patients who did not require an ICU bed and admitted them all to home. This helped to alleviate pressure on the staff and increase hospital bed capacity,” says Toro. 

To support the move to at-home health care, payers and providers — like Harvard Pilgrim and Landmark Health — are working collaboratively to ensure patients receive support and guidance to manage their health on an ongoing basis, and not just when they are physically in the doctor’s office.

5. Addressing social determinants that impact health

In an interview with Modern Healthcare, public health expert Dr. Brian Castrucci noted that COVID-19 has caused 19.3 deaths per 1,000 people in areas with high poverty rates, versus 11.1 deaths per 1,000 people in higher-income areas. The pandemic exposed that social determinants of health (SDOH) — access to quality housing, good education, transportation, and income — have a direct effect on the health of the population and create disparities in access to health care.

While organizations have already started designing solutions to address SDOH challenges, we can expect a continued focus on trying to understand health disparities and creating ways to alleviate financial strain for their employees, while also delivering high-quality care. In addition, carriers such as Harvard Pilgrim have expanded their care management teams to be inclusive of experts in the fields of behavioral health and social work to ensure that a holistic approach toward supporting their members is in place.


6. Greater emphasis on care for caregivers

More than one in six Americans are also caregivers, and as America’s elder population ages, that number will continue to increase even post-pandemic. Millennials, who make up a large percentage of the “sandwich generation,” are often taking on the responsibility of caring for both their aging parents and their children. 

With the demand for caregivers continuing to rise, it’s important for employers to support caregiver employees during this trying time and moving forward. Whether it’s increased mental benefits, a caregiving assistance/support program, or help finding long-term care, employers can lay the groundwork in order to best support caregivers. 

As 2021 begins amid a pandemic, employers and brokers must keep an eye on the current health care landscape so they can stay informed and ensure their benefits packages align with their employees’ needs. 

To learn more about Harvard Pilgrim’s 2021 plans, programs, and services, visit our employer and broker sites. 

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.