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Even the most optimistic person will concede that the world won’t be returning to exactly how it was before the coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, has killed tens of thousands, and infected hundreds of thousands more, forcing the majority of Americans to stay home—many without a paycheck. This pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of life in the United States and beyond: Jobs have been lost, stocks have plummeted and no one is sure when a new “normal” will arrive.

 

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Despite these and other uncertainties, employers have an opportunity to assess the current benefits landscape and take stock of improvement areas. In other words, what’s changing and how might that impact the marketplace down the road?

This article will examine how drastically things have shifted during the coronavirus pandemic and what shake-ups to expect in the future.

 

Cost increases

A primary development in the near future will be cost increases. This is unsurprising, given the bloated health care system and the drastic uptick in patients. While many health care providers are waiving fees associated with COVID-19 testing right now, those costs will likely trickle down in the long run.

Actuaries at Willis Towers Watson predict up to a 7% increase in health care premiums in 2021 for both self-funded and fully insured employers. Their prediction model varies based on how many Americans become infected with COVID-19, as more patients will mean higher rate hikes. The current average annual health premium increase is around 6%.

While this premium increase seems inevitable, fully insured employers have the luxury of not feeling the squeeze until renewal time. Self-insured employers aren’t so lucky. Instead, these organizations must choose whether to continue cost sharing (e.g., copays) for charges associated with COVID-19 testing or entirely cover those costs themselves, like major carriers are doing. This adds even more strain to situations that may already involve furloughs, layoffs and reduced productivity.

 

Expansion of virtual healthcare

Virtual health care—or telehealth—is the practice of communicating electronically with a physician, typically via telephone or video chat. The medium has risen in popularity over the past few years, but the coronavirus pandemic has proven just how viable it can be. Many insurers are already covering telehealth under their plans, and it’s a safe bet that others will do the same.

Many doctor’s offices are using telehealth to screen patients for COVID-19. In fact, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implores individuals who suspect they may be infected with COVID-19 to call ahead to their doctor before showing up unannounced. This is just one example of how telehealth is becoming part of mainstream medicine.

Adding to the appeal, telehealth is typically much more affordable (for employers and employees) than traditional doctor visits—even outside of a pandemic.

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