Originally published on Fast Company, by Dr. Anish Mehta, MD MPP
COVID-19 has accelerated the need for a better healthcare system for all Americans. The pandemic has not only widened the shameful healthcare disparities for minorities and underrepresented communities in our country, it has also exposed how the system fails the majority of the near 157 million of employed individuals who get healthcare through their employer.
Like it or not, employers are part of the healthcare industry. Companies are responsible for the health and safety of their workforce in new and unprecedented ways. Instead of viewing this as a burden, however, leaders should consider this moment an opportunity to build a stronger workplace culture and a more productive workforce.
Consider a patient I cared for earlier this year, in the midst of the strictest lockdown in the city. A young person with a pulmonary condition, my patient was at high risk of serious illness if they caught COVID-19. While they continued to work from home, they felt trapped in their apartment. Both physically and mentally isolated from the rest of the world, they suffered from sleepless nights and even panic attacks worrying about what would happen if they caught COVID-19.
My patient was fortunate enough to have employer-sponsored benefits that surrounded them with support: video visits with their physician, continuous text-based communication, teletherapy, remote specialist consults, and, critically, no copays for any of it. This network was not designed anticipating a global pandemic; it was created to support employees no matter the circumstances. And while it may seem costly, these benefits cost significantly less than the average cost of employee turnover, or even the average cost of hospitalization for a patient with COVID-19, which can range from $51,000 to $78,000.
We need a more affordable, accessible, and adaptable healthcare system that’s responsive to people’s needs. As leaders in Washington, D.C., are waging another battle over the Affordable Care Act, any government-led changes will take time to make an impact. Businesses, on the other hand, can demonstrate leadership right now by taking ownership over the health of their employees.
ANTICIPATING EMPLOYEE NEEDS
For too long, healthcare coverage has been considered an employee benefit in most industries, not a necessity for workers to remain productive. Across the board, COVID-19 has shown the flaws in that perspective. When an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, this causes ripple effects through an organization far beyond one person. There is lost productivity due to workplace contacts having to quarantine, additional expenses due to mandated paid sick leave, and sometimes even reduced consumer confidence in that business, long term.
It’s clear, today, that employees need a solution to manage COVID-19, but what about the next few years? We are still grappling to understand the long-term impact of COVID-19 on so-called long-haulers. There is also a looming mental health and substance use crisis in the wake of COVID-19.
Businesses will see a real return on investment and improvement in workplace culture if they offer benefits to meet employee needs. Access to telehealth is now table stakes for any healthcare plan; additional services like comprehensive mental health, physical therapy, chronic disease management, and specialized women’s health will become more than job perks. They will define a company’s culture, where employees should be encouraged to be open about their health and seek help when they need it.
INFLUENCE ON THE NATIONAL STAGE
As a master’s student researching healthcare policy, I saw firsthand how businesses can influence the agenda on healthcare. For example, in 2013 when the Vermont business community vocally opposed single-payer healthcare in their state, it had a real impact and the plan ultimately failed.
Many of the debates on health policy at the state and federal level are sadly the same today as they were in 2013. The Affordable Care Act was recently before the Supreme Court for the third time, and it seems poised to survive this challenge as well. However, businesses’ needs have changed dramatically over the last decade. Businesses have spoken up in the past for healthcare policies that impact their bottom line. Now, there’s another opportunity to support a national policy that makes healthcare more affordable and improves access for their employees.
President-elect Biden has proposed a plan to reform the ACA and extend eligibility for Marketplace-based plans to those currently on employer-sponsored insurance. While this would make healthcare more affordable for millions of employed Americans, these plans may have narrower and more restrictive networks.
As the government develops new policies, businesses can play a decisive role in ensuring affordable coverage for workers by advocating that any ACA reform bill include these three mandates:
- Lower insurance premiums and copays for their low-wage and medium-wage workers, not just those at the top.
- Limit the prevalence of high-deductible plans, which may reduce healthcare costs in the short term by passing costs on to the employees, but lead to decreased utilization of high-value, preventative care in the long run.
- Increase access to doctors by partnering directly with health systems or endorsing a public option.
A RISING PANDEMIC PRIORITY
Businesses have already shown great leadership in healthcare during this pandemic, from local mom-and-pop stores rapidly adapting to safer business models, to national chains like Walmart and Target enforcing mask mandates in their stores.
In many ways, COVID-19 is course-correcting how the employer community values the health needs of workers. Businesses are beginning to see how investing in keeping everyone healthy serves the greater good. Former President Obama may have said it best when speaking about the ACA during a recent interview. As he explained to Oprah, “No matter how good your health insurance is, if everybody around you is getting sick, then you’re at risk as well.” These are words to take to heart as workplaces and individual civilians continue to become more aware of the importance of healthcare.
Anish Mehta, MD MPP, is the director of clinical affairs at Eden Health. He holds a public policy master’s from Harvard Kennedy School of Government and has been a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic.