Guest Post – Aflac: A balanced benefits strategy to rest upon in 2021

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COVID-19’s economic and social impacts have touched nearly every corner of the United States, leaving many American households and businesses unsure of how to plan for their financial future. The insurance industry, as a result, is dealing with myriad challenges related to the pandemic. With so many American workers operating from remote offices, benefits education and enrollment have become a significant challenge in 2020.  

Aflac is working diligently to help businesses effectively manage employees’ benefits concerns through 2020 and into the new year. One way to navigate today’s marketplace is to think of an effective benefits strategy like a three-legged stool that serves the foundation for clients’ needs 

At Aflac, that first leg is the products and services helping address employees health and financial concerns, including the potential lasting impact of COVID-19. The second leg focuses on maximizing technology platforms to support not just enrollment, but also year-round benefits administration, education, consultations and messaging. The third leg centers on ensuring employees have what they need to feel confident about their benefits enrollment selections, especially in the digital and virtual environment accelerated by the pandemic. 

If brokers and clients are neglecting any of these three areas, the entire stool could become unbalanced. However, if brokers can work with businesses to ensure each area is covered, everyone can reap the rewards that come with a satisfied workforce that has a benefits package that can help in times of need 

COVID-19's knowns and unknowns 

Aflac’s recent white paper “Stronger on the Other Side” offers benefits insights that brokers may want to consider to help employers navigate these challenges and prepare their workforces accordingly. One area of focus in particular is the potential long-term health implications of COVID-19.  

While new information is released each day detailing how the coronavirus affects the human body, we know at this point that it has a significant short-term impact on the upper and lower respiratory systems. For most patients, these symptoms seem to subside naturally over time.  

However, in the long-term, complications brought on by COVID-19 are still being better defined. Some health experts continue to have concerns about the potential ramifications of the disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, some other symptoms and potential long-term side effects of the coronavirus may include lung and heart damage, blood clots, stroke and chronic fatigue.1 While the elderly and immunocompromised are most at risk to the illness, it is clear that younger people can still experience symptoms and transmit the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2   

Several other recent studies found a significant number of COVID-19 patients who had been hospitalized suffered memory loss, concentration problems, and dizziness or confusion months later.sup>3<,/sup> Some also report having lingering symptoms for weeks and even months after testing positive for the disease, with health officials calling this group COVID-19 long-haulers.4  

These complications could potentially increase not only the severity of the medical toll of COVID-19, but also the financial toll due to extended recovery periods and additional expenses for related treatment. This is notable because even the best health insurance likely does not cover 100% of health care costs, leaving patients with out-of-pocket expenses like copays, deductibles and potential lost income from being unable to work. In fact, the 2020 Aflac Health Care Issues Survey found that 60% of Americans faced medical expenses beyond a copay or deductible during their most recent hospital visit, with 42% saying they spent $1,000 or more in out-of-pocket costs.5 

As the number of cases in the U.S. continues to rise, much of the workforce is understandably concerned about their susceptibility to the virus. The stresses that come with the virus should prompt businesses to find healthy ways for their employees to address concerns and difficulties they may be experiencing. 

Even the best-laid plans 

Amid this workplace uncertainty, employers are looking for options to help workers overcome the potential financial ramifications of contracting COVID-19. Unfortunately, the typical health insurance plan is not designed to fully support employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and employers can’t afford to let the products and services leg of the stool go by the wayside.  

That is why businesses increasingly are considering adding supplemental insurance plans to their benefits packages. In fact, 88% of employers said they are interested in offering their employees insurance to cover costs associated with diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 or future pandemics, according to the 2020-2021 Aflac WorkForces Report.6 The reason for this popularity is likely the role of supplemental coverage in helping with the expenses health insurance does not cover.  

When a covered illness occurs, supplemental coverage pays insureds cash benefits directly, unless otherwise assigned. That cash can then be used however the insured desires, including for day-to-day expenses that could be compounded when sick like helping pay for child care, mortgage or rent, or groceries. The cost of an extended hospital stay or treatment alone can be staggering, but these funds can help provide insureds with added peace of mind as they deal with those concerns. Given how tight funds may be for many businesses, it helps that supplemental coverage can often be included at little to no cost to employers. 

Several supplemental plans, such as cancer or accident insurance, include a wellness or health screening benefit that may be paid if an insured receives a COVID-19 test. Another consideration for employees is hospital insurance, which pays when an insured is admitted to a hospital for a covered illness. In addition, critical illness insurance pays if the insured experiences a covered severe illness like a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure. A further option may be found with mixed-benefits coverage such as Aflac’s BenExtend® product, which provides a variety of top benefits from critical illness, hospital indemnity, accident or life insurance plans combined into one product.  

In addition to helping with the initial diagnosis and treatment, supplemental insurance can also assist with expenses related to a patient’s recovery. An example is disability insurance, which pays a benefit when an insured is unable to work due to a covered illness. In this way, supplemental coverage can help serve as a financial safety net for employees throughout the entire cycle of care from diagnosis and treatment to recovery making it a compelling option for brokers to share with clients.  

Supporting workers through times of need 

As many companies look for policies to help address the physical and financial effects of COVID-19, brokers may want to encourage employers to also consider whether they have the right resources on hand to help address the mental or emotional health of employees whether they return to the office or remain working remotely from home 

One resource to consider for these concerns is value-added services. When creating a supplemental insurance package with benefits like group accident, group hospital indemnity and group critical illness plans for clients, benefits advisors can also recommend adding services that foster mental and emotional health and provide value to employees from day one.  

  • Brokers may want to highlight services and programs available to help encourage physical wellness, work-life balance and emotional well-being all of which may be challenges during and after the pandemic and could impact workplace productivity. Some of the most popular and relevant value-added services for current times include:
    Employee assistance programs. Commonly referred to as EAPs, employee assistance programs provide short-term support from specialists who help resolve personal problems that are affecting their performance at work. They can assist with a range of issues, including substance abuse, work/life balance, child care or relationship difficulties.   
  • Health advocacy services. Health advocacy services provide a personal health care concierge who can assist with numerous tasks, including explaining a diagnosis, clarifying health care coverage, addressing claims questions, obtaining second opinions, negotiating bills and finding doctors and treatment centers.   
  • Wellness programs. Wellness programs that can help develop and nurture healthier lifestyles through online assistance, digital workshops, discounts and more continue to be popular benefits. The latest Aflac WorkForces Report found that 57% of employers consider wellness incentives one of their top-five programs to offer workers, making it a popular option.6  
  • Telehealth. Telehealth is growing in popularity because it provides access to remote consultation and care, especially during these challenging times. Before the pandemic, these services were often less likely to be covered or reimbursed by some insurance plans. However, according to a Business Group on Health survey, 53% of large employers will offer more virtual care options next year.7 

The future is now, and these policies could help employers stay in line with workers’ quickly changing needs. Telehealth is perhaps the best example of the importance of hitting these moving targets because the pandemic has left many people suddenly unable to meet for in-person appointments.  

A recent Amwell survey found that the number of consumers who reported ever having had a virtual visit jumped from 8% in 2019 to 22% in 2020. And more than half of all consumers said they expect to use telehealth more often following COVID-19 than they did before the pandemic, while 92% of providers said they expect to continue video visits after it is considered safe to see patients in person.8 

Telehealth has become an important innovation for determining next steps in potential coronavirus cases and helping doctors monitor patients’ symptoms. The value-added service has grown increasingly popular because it provides easy access to remote consultation and immediate care making it a must-have for employers hoping to upgrade their benefit plans.  

Fortunately, supplemental insurers such as Aflac provide access to these services to clients offering group products. Sometimes, they can even embed them into plan designs at reduced rates, giving brokers all the more reason to explore adding telehealth and other value-added services to clients' benefit options next year. 

Tools of the trade 

Employers see the importance supplemental insurance and value-added services have for employee benefits offerings amid COVID-related stress. In fact, a recent LIMRA study found that 40% of employers said COVID-19 has affected their views on the importance of their benefits package.9 But they’ll need broker partners to help them implement new enrollment tools and improve the user experience.  

Adding these offerings to outdated benefits systems let alone delivering them to employees is hardly simple in a time of near-universal remote work and could leave less tech-savvy clients in the cold. While the insurance industry has been rapidly moving toward digital enrollment and support tools for the last several years, recent research indicates that employees continue to be more open to new technology and platforms when it comes to enrollment. According to the Aflac WorkForces Report, 50% of Americans said they want to sign up for their benefits through an enrollment website.6  

To better meet those needs and overcome the challenges of remote work, many employers are looking to digital platform solutions for help with benefits administration tools and enrollment and that’s where brokers can help. 

Ideally, brokers can walk alongside clients as they reimagine their post-pandemic enrollment strategy for the coming year and then help them implement a platform that fits this new reality. Many employers will ask to speak to a benefits consultant to find the platform that best matches their request, and brokers would be wise to facilitate those conversations. But if the onus does fall on the broker to evaluate platforms alone, there are a few key considerations that must be acknowledged: 

  • Sophistication: Some smaller employers, which may have little to no experience with technology, could simply be looking to take their paper enrollment process online. Other mid-size or larger businesses, which are likely familiar with digital tools, may want to implement full-fledged administrative platforms that can handle enrollment, eligibility, payroll and more. 
  • Past experiences and pain points: Determine what system is currently in use and what the client’s experience has been with it, including challenges as well as things they like. This will help you understand where they are today and plot out their digital transformation roadmap.  
  • Security: Benefits management necessitates the transfer of highly confidential information, and that means security must be a top priority. Knowing what kind of encryption, cybersecurity protection and protocols are in place with the platform can help ensure the platform will protect sensitive employee information. 
  • Future growth needs: Along with looking at what an immediate upgrade looks like, consider the client’s business growth strategy, including plans for expansion, acquisition or a change in another direction. Business strategy can be an important piece of context that determines where employers may wish to spend their money. 

Once these qualities are fully discussed, determine whether the platform will practically help with back-end administration or if the client is being tempted by a startup’s flashy user experience. If the platform won’t help properly with payroll deductions or ensuring workers have the right coverage in place, another choice may be in order. 

Enrollment and more 

Even after a client has settled on their favorite platform and begun the enrollment process, the work doesn’t stop there. Whether a business has undergone a full platform overhaul or a simpler benefits refresh, they will almost always need help to get the most out of current and future enrollment cycles.  

That’s partially because even when equipped with the newest software, many employers still miss out on all their platform may have to offer. Tools like decision support and enrollment analytics can help employers reach the next level of employee engagement during the benefits process, but they may not be automatically enabled on a new platform. 

Brokers can discuss which tactics clients are hoping to implement next year as soon as possible the more time employers have to implement these programs, the better. Brokers should also stress that the benefits of these tools can be wide-ranging: Having a variety of digital communications tools on hand makes it easier to address the employee population as a whole or drill down to the individual level based on personal preferences, generational trends, life stages and other parameters.  

For example, employees who recently turned 26, changed their marital status or had a baby are all more likely to be taking a closer look at their benefits this year and may be keen to engage for additional guidance. Further, while the vast majority of employees (92%) choose the same benefits year after year and on average spend 33 minutes on the task, about half of employees said the pandemic was a wake-up call to invest more time researching and selecting the best coverage options for them and their families.6  

As a bonus, once enrollment is complete, clients can use the data they gather from digital enrollments to further optimize their insurance plans. Aflac offers a variety of existing communication resources that agents and brokers can leverage. These tools make it easier for employees to understand the details of their coverage options, helping them to feel less overwhelmed when choosing benefits. 

In addition to the platform a client might use, maintaining the human touch during an enrollment along with including proper technology is important especially with so many companies still working remotely. Brokers may want to encourage employers to offer each of the following enrollment routes: 

  • Virtual-counseling enrollments: This format uses video conferencing technology to connect employees and licensed benefits representatives in a virtual face-to-face setting online to review benefits, consult and complete enrollments.
  • Phone enrollments: Licensed benefits representatives can also counsel and help employees elect and apply for benefits over the phone. The 2020-2021 Aflac WorkForces Report found that 32% of companies have used phone enrollments with an advisor, and 88% of these businesses said it was extremely or very effective.6
  • Web- and app-based enrollments: Like nearly every other industry, the benefits enrollment space is shifting online. Today, enrollment platforms available on computers, tablets and other smart devices collect the information needed to process benefits elections and applications. In fact, 62% of companies said they have used a self-service online enrollment platform.6  

Employers should be fully prepared to help employees handle enrollment in whatever method they choose and be willing to adapt when standards change.  

Finding stability amid uncertainty   

As employers prepare clients for a “new normal” — whatever that might look like — brokers can consider what they've learned from a year that has seen the world seemingly turned upside down. Employees have become rightfully concerned about their medical and financial vulnerability amid the pandemic. Even when more stability returns, the long-term health ramifications of COVID-19 remain unclear, and certain consumer behaviors especially an increased willingness to embrace digital solutions for benefits administration and enrollment are likely here to stay.  

Among those consumer behaviors is a growing interest among employees in policies that can help manage expenses that health insurance doesn’t cover. With this has come an increased interest in importance of benefits education and enrollment, which employers are reacting to in real time. 

To help soothe their workers’ worries, employers have looked to invest further in their remote enrollment capabilities, whether via phone, website or app. As employers dive into their evaluations of the various platforms, digital tools, and insurance products and services that can handle the challenges of this unique moment and hold up for the future brokers can share their expertise among clients and determine the best possible benefits strategy to help business remain properly balanced. 

As we enter 2021, brokers have a unique opportunity to strengthen their bonds with clients by giving them a steady stool to rest on, turning the disruptive nature of COVID-19 into a driving force for positive evolution within the health insurance industry 

Aflac Incorporated (NYSE: AFL) is a Fortune 500 company, helping provide protection to more than 50 million people through its subsidiaries in Japan and the U.S., where it is a leading supplemental insurer by paying cash fast when policyholders get sick or injured. For more than six decades, insurance policies of Aflac Incorporated's subsidiaries have given policyholders the opportunity to focus on recovery, not financial stress. Aflac Life Insurance Japan is the leading provider of medical and cancer insurance in Japan, where it insures 1 in 4 households. Fortune magazine recognized Aflac as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America for 20 consecutive years. For 14 consecutive years, Aflac has been recognized by Ethisphere as one of the World's Most Ethical Companies. In 2020, Fortune included Aflac Incorporated on its list of World's Most Admired Companies for the 19th time, and Bloomberg added Aflac Incorporated to its Gender-Equality Index, which tracks the financial performance of public companies committed to supporting gender equality through policy development, representation and transparency. To learn how to get help with expenses health insurance doesn't cover, get to know us at Aflac.com. 
1 Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “COVID-19 (Coronavirus): Long-Term Effects.” www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “People at Increased Risk.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/index.html. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
3 New York Times. “‘I Feel Like I Have Dementia’: Brain Fog Plagues Covid Survivors.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/11/health/covid-survivors.html. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
4 Harvard Health Publishing. “If you've been exposed to the coronavirus.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/if-youve-been-exposed-to-the-coronavirus#:~:text=Long%2Dhaulers%20are%20people,COVID%2D19%20syndrome. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
5 The 2020 Aflac Health Care Issues Survey is a national online survey of 1,138 U.S. adults fielded in August 2020 by Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Learn more at Aflac.com/HCI. 
6 2020-2021 Aflac WorkForces Report. The employer survey, conducted by Kantar on behalf of Aflac, took place online between June 8 and July 1, 2020. The survey captured responses from 1,200 employers across the United States in various industries. Learn more at Aflac.com/AWR.  
7 Business Group on Health’s 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey. https://www.businessgrouphealth.org/resources/2021-large-employers-health-care-strategy-and-plan-design-survey. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
8 Amwell’s 2020 Physician and Consumer Survey. https://business.amwell.com/resources/telehealth-covid-19-and-the-future-of-healthcare-findings-from-amwells-2020-survey-of-physicians-and-consumers. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
9 LIMRA. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Employers’ Approaches to Workplace Benefits.” https://www.limra.com/en/research/research-abstracts/2020/impact-of-covid-19-on-employers-approaches-to-workplace-benefits. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020. 
The content within is for informational purposes for agent and broker-facing audiences. This information is not approved to distribute to prospective insureds, to prospective accounts, or to use as a solicitation. Misrepresenting this, or any, information to solicit or induce an insured to lapse, forfeit, or surrender an insurance policy is prohibited by law. Any use not specifically permitted herein is strictly prohibited.  Aflac includes Aflac and/or Aflac New York and/or Continental American Insurance Company (CAIC) and/or Continental American Life Insurance Company.  
The value-added services mentioned herein are offered by multiple providers. Aflac’s affiliation with the value-added service providers is limited only to a marketing alliance.  Other than this marketing alliance, Aflac and the value-added service providers are not affiliated in any way. Aflac makes no representations or warranties regarding the value-added service providers, and is not responsible for any of the products or services provided by the value-added service providers. Value-Added Services are not available to accounts located in ID, MD, MN, NY or PR. Value-Added Services are not available to residents of ID or MN. Additional state restrictions may apply and benefits may vary by state.  Each value-added service provider offers its products and services subject to its own terms, limitations and exclusions. Refer to plan details for further information on terms, limitations and exclusions.  
N200578                Exp. 11/21 

 

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