Creating a Comprehensive Benefits Package for the
Pandemic with Disability and Behavioral Health Plans
By Greg Poulakos and Mindy Legere
Enduring the COVID-19 pandemic has been financially and emotionally trying for today’s workforce. Not only are they concerned about their physical health during this time, but the isolation, loss and uncertainty that has accompanied this pandemic has had a major and lasting impact on Americans’ mental health. Further, stay-at-home orders have made it difficult for many to access the resources and treatment necessary to cope.
The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted a mental health crisis in America, and it’s imperative that employers play their part in helping combat it. While warnings of a second wave persist, now more than ever, it’s important that employers understand and provide solutions that support their employees’ mental health. For many, the solution lies in places that may not necessarily be top of mind: ensuring disability and behavioral health benefits packages are available to provide the extra support and resources their employees need right now. Disability benefits are known for their coverage of physical disabilities by offering income replacement in the event of an unexpected injury or illness, but few employers and employees realize that they also include a variety of mental health and wellness services.
Employees are struggling with the pandemic
Mental health was already a huge cause for concern before the pandemic, with one in five U.S. adults experiencing mental illness each year. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll suggests that the pandemic is likely to have both long- and short-term implications for mental health and substance use, and that both those with pre-existing issues and those who are newly afflicted will likely require mental health and substance use services. For example, the federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress, which is run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, received texts from about 20,000 people in need throughout April—a more than 1,000% increase over the same time last year. Despite the clear need for abundant and easily accessible behavioral health resources, there remain a number of barriers keeping these individuals from receiving the help they need.
Employers’ role in the mental health crisis
With nearly half of Americans relying on their employers for health insurance, it’s important that employers offer comprehensive disability insurance packages that include behavioral health benefits to provide full coverage for the potential mental and physical implications of this pandemic. It’s also important for employers to acknowledge that poor mental health can pose a danger to employees’ physical health, especially during the current pandemic.
Employee mental health should always be top of mind for employers, as it can have crippling effects on employees’ whole health, presenteeism and absenteeism. According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and costs the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Despite these startling figures, mental health stigma is still a major challenge in the workplace. This can lead to a deficiency in resources provided by employers to help those who may be struggling. Mental health benefits offer a means for intervention before it becomes a larger issue that can potentially put them out of work.
To prevent or treat serious behavioral health issues, employers can ensure disability plans address these needs by offering access to mental health professionals and additional wellness tools, and they can make sure employees are aware of these resources and how to access them. Not only will this help decrease the long-term effects of the pandemic-induced mental health crisis on the U.S. workforce and economy but offering robust plans will help attract and retain top talent by providing confidence that all their health needs are covered.
Choosing a comprehensive disability benefits package
When choosing a package to best meet employees’ needs, it’s important to double check that the insurance provider is adjusting benefits packages to address the unique behavioral health challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic and are making important resources and tools readily available to participants without a claim in hand. A comprehensive disability benefits plan will provide a variety of services to help employees develop coping skills for stress, depression or anxiety, and protect them legally and financially as the pandemic is driving an increase in fraud and identity theft.
Some plans offer member assistance programs featuring a wide range of services valuable to members at no additional cost. These can often be used at any time, and their use does not have to be related to actual disability claims. One component of these programs is focused on counseling and consultations, which provides 24/7 telehealth access to a licensed counselor via phone or video when a member needs help with crisis intervention, stress management or even financial/legal consultations. In-person counseling may also be available when facilities reopen, and the insurer may offer assistance in reviewing a therapist’s background and qualifications to help choose one that’s right for the patient.
Another component of these programs is online services and tools to provide some peace of mind during these uncertain times. Resources to look for include COVID-19 webinars, identity theft services, debt and credit management, investment planning and a state-specific estate planning tool. This can include support for drafting a will, health care directives, durable power of attorney for finances and other helpful documents.
Offering a comprehensive disability package provides an advanced level of care, including early detection and outreach, to help any members who may be struggling. This opportunity for proactive outreach has major benefits for both employees and employers. Employees are able to get the help they need as soon they begin feeling off, which significantly decreases or prevents disability claims, and in turn saves employers money on health care costs.
A win-win for all involved
Employees are a company’s most valuable asset. So it’s of the utmost importance to ensure they remain mentally and physically healthy with the resources and tools necessary to navigate the deeply personal challenges the coronavirus pandemic has thrown at them.
Given the profound impact of mental health on an employee’s absenteeism, presenteeism and overall productivity, offering disability benefits that make financial, medical, and behavioral health support more readily accessible will dramatically increase the opportunity for employees to receive preventative care and in turn, decrease the number of avoidable disability claims. This will not only keep employees healthier in the long term but will boost employers’ bottom line by reducing costs related to health care, absenteeism and lost productivity.
Greg Poulakos is president of Disability, Absence, Life and Supplemental Health, Anthem Blue Cross.
Mindy Legere is staff VP, Behavioral Health, Clinical & Specialty Programs, Anthem Blue Cross.