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5 ways to make the most of technology during health care open enrollment

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected how many of us live and work, accelerating the adoption of technology for everything from grocery shopping to workout routines. Health care has been no exception, with technology reshaping how many people select–and use–their health care benefits.

In most cases, the practice of employees gathering in a conference room to review health plan options is a distant memory. Even before COVID-19, technology was transforming how many employers select and offer health benefits to employees, simultaneously improving access to information while putting added responsibility on employees to make more informed decisions.

New technologies can help with those efforts. With the COVID-19 pandemic underscoring the importance of providing people with access to health care benefits, information and services, employers are in a unique position to help simplify the health care experience for employees, support their well-being and potentially curb costs.

As millions of Americans make health care benefit decisions during the fall’s open enrollment, here are five technology-related tips Colorado employers should consider now and in the future:

1. Make Virtual Care a Priority

COVID-19 was a watershed moment for tele-health, with the use of remote care surging dramatically since the pandemic started. While many people have returned to in-person care, some medical treatments, such as for urgent and behavioral health care services, continue to stay at or above pre-pandemic levels.

To help employees access care remotely, it is important to offer health plans that include coverage for virtual care, including options for tele-health visits with their own doctors and 24/7 access to national care providers.

As we’ve seen, virtual care can be a more convenient and affordable way for people to visit with a doctor about various health issues, ranging from urgent and routine care, ongoing chronic condition management, behavioral health, and specialty care such as oral, eye and hearing health.

2. Add Digital Fitness Apps

Most U.S. employers offer well-being programs, many of which include financial incentives for healthy activities such as walking, going to the gym or meeting certain health benchmarks (e.g., cholesterol levels, body mass index or non-nicotine use). To make these programs even more useful, some employers and health plans are now including access to digital fitness apps at no additional cost, helping people start–or enhance–their at-home fitness routines.

With some people hesitant to return to public gyms due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, offering employees digital fitness apps is an increasingly popular option to help individuals stay active while staying safe.

3. Adopt Remote-Patient Monitoring Programs

Remote-patient monitoring programs and so-called digital therapeutics are becoming increasingly sophisticated, helping people and care professionals make more data-driven treatment decisions while driving greater personal engagement.

While these approaches can vary, some integrate virtual care, wearable devices, and artificial intelligence to remove barriers to care, customize treatments and help people–and care professionals–make decisions based on real-time data.

These resources may help prevent disease complications, while helping some people avoiding the need for emergency or hospital care.

For instance, some are providing people with type 2 diabetes with integrated tools that include a continuous glucose monitor, activity tracker, app-based notifications, and one-on-one coaching and support. The goal is to help encourage healthier lifestyle decisions, such as food choices, movement, and sleep patterns, while reducing spikes in blood sugar levels and, in some cases, even achieving type 2 diabetes remission.

4. Make Sense of Big Data

Big data is a buzzword for information that is only meaningful if employers can make sense of it and apply it accordingly. To that end, employers may now have important access to online resources that can enable managers to analyze and make sense of health data, accounting for aggregate medical, prescription and specialty claims, demographics, and clinical and well-being information.

This can provide an analytics-driven roadmap to help employers implement tailored clinical management and employee-engagement programs, which may help improve health outcomes, offer industry-specific health programs, mitigate expenses, and help employees take charge of their health.

Likewise, predictive analytics is being used to help address social determinants of health, such as access to nutritious food and affordable housing. With research suggesting that various social barriers impact up to 80% of a person’s health, some employers are investing in programs that use data to proactively identify people with these issues and then connect them to community resources for support.

5. Bundle Benefits

While many people may focus on medical coverage during open enrollment, it is important that employees avoid overlooking specialty benefits such as vision, dental, hearing and accident protection. In fact, a recent UnitedHealthcare survey found that 81% of respondents said having access to specialty benefits is “important.”

Plus, companies that combine medical coverage with specialty benefits through a single health care company may be able to leverage data to help improve health outcomes, flag gaps in care, drive productivity, and reduce costs[1]. Some “bundle and save” programs enable employers to save up to 4% on medical premiums through improved health outcomes and operational simplification.

By considering these tips, employers can use technology to help increase employee retention and satisfaction, while building a culture of well-being amid COVID-19 and moving forward.

Dr Donna Oshea Headshot Dr. Donna O’Shea is the chief medical officer of population health at UnitedHealthcare.

[1] Review of the impact of the UnitedHealthcare integrated approach on Key and National Account customers, 2018

How employers can plan for virtual open enrollment this year

Open enrollment is right around the corner and this year poses different challenges for both employers and employees. COVID-19 has forced businesses to embrace technology and get creative not only when it comes to day-to-day operations, but also meetings, conferences and events. Open enrollment for employee benefits will be no different. COVID-19 has impacted benefit plan design, healthcare costs and may have financial impacts on employees. While COVID-19 provides unprecedented challenges for employers, it also creates opportunities to make a difference.

The effects of COVID-19 on healthcare and benefits will be top of employees’ minds heading into open enrollment season and the current environment will be a point of stress for many. Employers should address the impact of coronavirus on health benefits head on and explain how it’s affecting benefit packages, while encouraging employees to select a financial and wellness path which best suits their individual needs.

A recent BenefitsPro survey of more than 150,000 employers found that there were dramatic changes in employees’ prioritization of their financial goal’s since COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of employees chose “taking a vacation” as their number one financial priority. When asked again, 90 days from when lockdown orders started, employees’ priorities switched their priorities from vacation to “setting up an emergency fund” and “saving for retirement.”

Employers should keep this shift in mind during their open enrollment season. The current state of the economy has changed many people’s behaviors, and this means employees are more stressed and are starting to think more about long-term challenges. For employers, this is why wellness programs and health benefits are becoming more important, as they can enable employees to invest to meet their long-term needs, not just short-term wants.

Below are some ways that employers can better prepare and plan for a beneficial and virtual open enrollment session this year.

Plan early

As employers gear up for open enrollment, it can be beneficial to pause and reflect on the past year. Talk about what was effective – this can help frame the conversation around this year’s format and any plan changes. Be sure to think about and understand the benefits employees need now versus this time last year, and the impact of COVID-19 on benefit goals. Highlight benefits that might be more useful during the pandemic such as telehealth, mental health services and coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Consider conducting a survey or quiz to employees before open enrollment to gauge what aspects of a benefits package they are most interested in learning about. Employers can create presentations and highlight certain features based on those results. Remember, this is a chance to make the process more personal than in the past. By taking advantage of new technology that enables one-on-one, face-to-face interactions, benefits teams can actually provide more support on-demand and have the opportunity to make the experience more beneficial and perhaps better than before.

Consider a virtual benefits fair

A virtual benefits fair can engage all employees, including those working remotely. Create an agenda and consider hosting multiple sessions to ensure that these sessions fit in with all employees’ schedules. Send out reminders and outline what employees can expect at the fair, including highlights and changes to any benefits packages or offerings. Keep the presentation simple and straightforward. Even if the benefits fair goes as planned, employees will most likely have questions. It can be helpful to create a benefits FAQs digital handout for employees that covers basic questions and can be a valuable resource for employees before they ask questions.

Employers may also consider inviting vendors to attend and participate in virtual benefits fairs. They can provide specific information and guidance if employees have unique situations they would like to discuss. Employers can also host breakout sessions through virtual breakout rooms for employees to join if they have additional questions or would like to learn more about a certain topic.

Provide on-demand support

Most employees are still working from home, but that shouldn’t mean that they don’t have access to enrollment help and guidance. Employers should make it possible for their employees to virtually stop by their desk for help. Think of what a traditional open enrollment fair or kick-off would typically bring, such as office hours or a time after the presentation in which employees can ask questions, and figure how to provide the same support virtually. To avoid being inundated with calls or emails, employers should consider working with their HR team use a calendar tool where employees can book times with staff members to talk through considerations, ask questions and make the process more personal.

It’s important to invest in technology and test it out in advance. Be sure to provide benefits decision support and education tools to make this process as seamless as possible. Consider sending text alerts or emails to your employees about enrollment and record the primary information session so that employees can access it at a later date for a refresh or if they missed it.

Focus on engagement

Try to focus on creating more communication and make it interesting so that it catches employees’ attention. Employers should try to focus on key changes to benefits. If employers decide to move forward with an employee survey to gauge plan aspect interest, this is where employers and the HR team can focus on those results. Host one-on-one virtual sessions and ask for feedback. Measure the success of virtual enrollment by measuring engagement before, during and after the process.

Make it personal

Employees expect personalized communication and will want their specific questions to be answered rather than receiving generic content. Employers should focus on personal messaging and creating space and options for employees to feel heard and have their questions answered. While this is a challenging time, employers should expect to have a more successful enrollment when they connect with employees about their individual situations and allow employees to make better choices when participating in programs. Educate employees on the benefits available, how they work and what type of value they should expect. In turn, this will build benefit awareness, financial hardship support, resource directives and a caring culture.

It’s not too late to start planning and executing a successful virtual benefits enrollment. Keep in mind that COVID-19 is changing the benefit-covered population as well as goals and priorities. Be prepared to adjust strategy as the current environment is always changing. Claims data can help identify trends and potentially any gaps in care that need to be addressed. Invest in technology, support and education tools for your employees. Remember, a good financial wellness platform can ensure that the employee is making an informed decision based on their benefits package and their specific circumstances.

Phil Mason is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Institutional Banking and director of Healthcare Services for UMB Bank. He can be reached at [email protected].