Coffee Break with Gary Walters, GroupHEALTH’s Senior Vice-President of Underwriting – PART 2

Gary Walters - GroupHEALTH Senior Vice-President of Underwriting | GroupHEALTH Benefit Solutions
With decades of group benefits experience, relationships across the sector, and as the leader of one of Canada’s most innovative group benefits risk teams, GroupHEALTH Senior Vice-President of Underwriting Gary Walters knows how to build benefit plans for the future (even the post-pandemic future). We sat down with him to get his thoughts on where benefits plans are going. Today’s conversation is about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on benefit plans.

1. What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health benefits?

It depends on which benefits! Benefits like dental coverage and some paramedical services weren’t used as much earlier during the pandemic as dental and medical offices closed, in some cases for up to four months. At that time, we saw a temporary reduction in claims, and so GroupHEALTH offered premium relief to our clients. Once dental and paramedical offices opened up again we experienced a surge in claims, in some cases to levels that exceed pre-pandemic levels. Employees were “catching up” on treatment from dentists and paramedical providers, and we continue to see this trend continue, particularly in December.

On the other hand, services like drug coverage have been relatively unaffected by the pandemic. Not surprisingly, employees kept making drug claims throughout the pandemic, and we expect to see steady claims volumes on an ongoing basis.

Of course, we’re also seeing an increase in demand for remote medical services, like GroupHEALTH’s embedded virtual health service provided through Telus Health. Getting access to quality healthcare, without physically visiting a healthcare facility, has been a popular service throughout the pandemic.

A tool that has effectively helped employees during challenging times is the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). Through EFAP, individuals have access to short-term counselling provided by licensed, experienced clinical counsellors. Resources such as this are proven to have positive impacts on the well-being of employees – and may even have a greater impact during a pandemic.

2. What impact has the current remote work arrangement had on employee benefits?

The nature of employment is changing, and some of this is driven by how easy it is to work from home. In the past, the employee benefits provider assumed that an employee was working full-time for one employer only. Today the same employee might be working for two employers, both 20 hours a week. The question is: “Who’s paying for your benefits?” If you are covered by both employers, how do you coordinate coverage between those two plans?

As well, we are seeing a shift for a portion of the economy from full-time employment to more contract-based work. Remote work also tends to facilitate this arrangement, and we’re seeing this growth through the pandemic. Not only does this increase the occurrence of employees working for more than one employer, but also different employees working from different provinces across Canada. This can complicate plans because health plans vary by province. For example, in British Columbia, you have Pharmacare that covers the cost of employees’ drugs. That’s not the case in Ontario. The same set of benefits will cost differently depending on the province of residence of the employee.

3. How important is it for the company to provide employee benefits during the pandemic? Should small businesses provide health benefits to their employees?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it very clear to everyone how important benefits are. As we’ve learned, it can be especially difficult to predict health trends during a pandemic: even individuals with a healthy lifestyle can be impacted by pandemic-related health issues and challenges, including, in particular, mental health concerns.

That’s why it’s especially important for organizations of all sizes to carry on providing benefits. One thing we’ve noticed is how much more appreciative employees are of their benefits during a widespread health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic – and that means that organizations that offer benefits have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

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