PODCAST

Top health benefits trends to watch out for in 2023.

For Your Benefits
For Your Benefits
Top health benefits trends to watch out for in 2023
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As the price of healthcare continues to rise, many Americans have been forced to make tough choices about what they can and cannot afford. Offering a robust employee benefits package is a terrific way to increase retention, expand recruitment efforts, and show employees that they are valued.

A good health benefits package is one of the crucial factors that can impact an employee’s decision to remain or leave. With the competition for talent remaining fierce in 2023, Scot & Kate Grooms from Grooms Benefits discuss the top emerging health benefits trends that can act as powerful differentiators for businesses that would like to maintain a competitive edge.

Enhancing benefits can take place anytime throughout the year, including offering care advocacy. Check out this recent blog, “What employees want in 2023 and how care advocacy can help.” It examines the ways care advocacy can improve the healthcare experience while using the benefits you already have in place.

Amanda Evans:
Hey, everyone. Welcome back to For Your Benefits, the podcast where we cover trends in employee benefits, healthcare, company culture, employee engagement, and more. I’m your host for today, Amanda Evans, Chief Marketing Officer with SentryHealth, a care navigation company where we help members navigate their health benefits and the healthcare system.

In today’s episode, we’ll look at some of the top emerging trends. And joining me are Scot and Kate from Grooms Benefits. Welcome, Scot and Kate! Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourselves and Grooms Benefits?

Scot Grooms:
Sure, Amanda, and thank you. Great to be here and we appreciate the invitation. And again, my name is Scot Grooms, I’m the president and CEO of Grooms Benefits. We’re an independent benefits brokerage and consulting firm based in Tampa, Florida. Our agency has been crafting employee benefit programs for over 30 years here in Tampa Bay and across the United States. I also currently sit as the president of the local chapter of CEBS, which is the Certified Employee Benefit Specialist here in Tampa. And my passion is helping employers transition employee benefits from just a cost of doing business into a strategic business investment.

My partner Kate serves as the Chief Engagement Officer for our firm. She’s our certified wellness expert and also founded our sister company, Hello Benefits, a creative agency specializing in tools and tactics for HR and employee benefit communications.

Kate Grooms:
It’s true, I’m all of those wonderful things he said and more. While Scot and his team of advisors work mostly with employers to design and create powerful and valuable benefit programs, my team was created to better connect employees and their families to their benefits program, making sure they understand and properly use the benefits available to them. Having a team specifically dedicated to support employees in this way makes our boutique agency highly unique.

How have benefits changed in 2022 compared to prior years?

Amanda Evans:
So, I’m going to jump right in. What did you all see in 2022 compared to prior years and how have benefits packages changed?

Kate Grooms:
Well, if we’ve learned anything from the effects of the pandemic and even years before that, it’s that employee benefits aren’t just a box to check anymore—not for the employers who are offering them and especially not for the employees electing them. In the last few years, we’ve seen an awakening of sorts of people making these decisions more carefully, more thoughtfully, and more proactively.

Scot Grooms:
And I’m not sure if employee benefits have ever been more important. I think it’s also important that we lift up a bit and consider a broader perspective on some of the macro employment trends in the US as well. The latest employment data shares that the so-called “great resignation” has dipped a little bit from the volume of voluntary leaves in 2021, but still around 4 million jobs a month. Some of the highest levels we’ve seen in more than 20 years. SHRM released survey results this past summer illustrating the primary reasons employees were quitting. And right after better comp, employees have been leaving for better benefits and improved work-life balance. And beginning in 2020, as we all know and remember, there’s been an incredible remote employee shift. And we found it interesting, according to LinkedIn’s chief economist, pre-pandemic, one in every 67 US jobs posted on LinkedIn was remote. These days it’s around one in six.

Kate Grooms:
And in regards to that, before COVID open enrollment was generally always conducted on-site and in person if it could be, through enrollment meetings or benefit fairs, what have you. And then overnight, while people were learning how to live their life without leaving their house, it was a hard and fast pivot to making things 100% virtual. After being able to experience both, I would say that our most successful engaging open enrollments in 2022 found that a hybrid of flexible activities was the best approach. Online resources and on-demand activities for people who are still 100% remote, or prefer to do their own research, or have family members that assist with this process combined with an option for those who may need more assistance or personal attention to take time with a benefits counselor about their particular situations, especially when facing plan or program changes. I think this hybrid version of open enrollment is the one that’s here to stay.

Scot Grooms:
I think one of our more enjoyable communication efforts these days, kind of taking that hybrid approach, is last month we had a game show quiz and incorporated things to highlight within an employee benefits package that really have been underutilized with the program. The employer was keeping a lot of things consistent, so we decided to lift that up. Kate put on her game show voice-

Kate Grooms:
I have a great game show voice.

Scot Grooms:
… and we had a really good time doing that.

Amanda Evans:
I think that the game show idea is a great way to do that and then creates education, and then also recall and retention. Later on, when somebody has a need they’ll think, “Oh, I remember learning about that in open enrollment.”

Kate Grooms:
And the more fun they’re having, the more they’re learning, right?

Important factors that should be considered when designing health benefits for employees.

Amanda Evans:
Exactly. So Scot, to follow up on what you said, I recently read an article that nearly 80% of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an employer because of their benefits. And you referenced the “great resignation, ” so it’s clear that health benefits are a key driver of retention and recruitment. However, on the other side of that, we recently heard through the grapevine that employers were getting hit with significant cost increases at renewal—upwards of 40% for some. And costs are expected to rise again this year. So, what would you consider the most important factors when designing a benefits package to really balance that employee satisfaction with cost management?

Scot Grooms:
I think a lot of organizations are really rethinking their health benefits in general. We often say, all right, well let’s first determine where you are today. Beyond just health rate increases, let’s take a step back. The other thing that can be challenging is when you look at benchmarking information. And I know a lot of employers want to see what other companies are doing, but what we’ve found is every single employer is so unique, that actually could be dangerous.

So, in terms of designing a benefits program when you get hit with that huge renewal, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and not think, “Okay, this is what we did last year.” If an organization is receiving that high of an increase, there’s a good chance it is a fully insured arrangement. And with that these days, there are some creative alternative funding options that could prove to be a more strategic plan in the upcoming year. So we often tell folks in that case, not knowing where your increase is going to fall, work well in advance of your renewal period and determine if some alternative avenues for plan designs, and not just traditional carriers, but alternative arrangements with third party administrators and renting networks, and maybe some different cost approaches to provider contracting. The more in advance you can do before you’re hit with that sticker shock, the better you’re prepared to be able to pivot.

What can employers do to improve smarter utilization of their benefits?

Amanda Evans:
And I would agree with that, Scot. And I think over the years we continue to see more and more employers going to a self-funded arrangement just to have more control. So what are you seeing and potentially offering to your clients to really reach through to those employees and those members, and educate and drive awareness for smarter utilization, really?

Scot Grooms:
I think this is where many benefit advisors can distinguish themselves as more business consultants versus traditional brokers and help employers design and execute creative and valuable health programs. I think one of the things specific to your question on helping individuals within an employer population is creating incentives where members can pay less for care when they need it if they’re using higher, more top-quality providers. It’s counter to our general intuition where typically a high-quality provider is working at a lower charge level compared to its peers. In that case, you can develop a strategy where it’s a win-win—employees are winning, employers are winning, and family members are as well. And there are a lot of ways to execute that. We find employing a partner that focuses independently on care advocacy and healthcare support can really play a vital role within a health plan to help drive that.

A resource that is available on demand, but also can be proactively and creating awareness of the partner through incentives. And when we say incentives, it could be, for instance, if an individual on a health plan needs an MRI, they could either choose a no copay, no out-of-pocket cost seeing an independent or if it’s hospital-based, maybe it’s subject to a deductible or $1000 copay or what have you. Those monetary incentives will really drive awareness and start to create kind of a buzz within the organization to take advantage of those types of partners.

Kate Grooms:
The thing is though, is that employers are going to miss the mark if they don’t consider it part of their job to educate employees on how to smartly use the benefits that are offered or how to be a better healthcare consumer in general. Like the example that Scot was just talking about for an MRI, if you have an employee spending thousands and thousands of dollars on an MRI that their doctor recommended in a hospital setting because they “didn’t know” they could get equally as good of an MRI from an outpatient facility down the street for a fraction of the cost, then really that employee’s wasting both their money and your money simply because they haven’t been educated on the fact that where you go for these services matter.

Scot Grooms:
There’s also no better MRI than the MRI that’s not needed. And sometimes with proper consultation, that’s sometimes, one of the benefits as well. So not just steerage on lower costs, but appropriate advice and consultation on if procedures or services are needed in the first place.

Mental health: a top priority and how employers can support their employees.

Amanda Evans:
And you both hit on it, saving employers, but also the employees. One of the things that we have seen emerging over the last couple of years, and I think employers started adding mental health services in COVID, and we have only continued on our side to see increased utilization of our mental health services. So thinking about trends in 2023 and where that may be going, why should mental health be a top priority for organizations, and what can employers do now to support employees?

Scot Grooms:
Kate and I were huddling on some of this not long ago and a study from the CDC was released through SHRM. The costs for folks with mental health disorders and other physical conditions are two to three times higher than those without co-occurring illnesses. And on top of that, the study estimates that for every $1 that employers are putting into treatments for common mental disorders, there’s a return on investment of $4 in improved health and productivity.

Kate Grooms:
Outside of the financial part and the ROI, it should be a top priority to employers, because whether we like it or not, it’s 100% a top priority right now to employees. The pandemic shifted the way many people think about mental health and today people are taking their own mental health concerns much more seriously.

According to another industry survey that Scot and I saw, a massive 89% of employees said their mental health is more important to them now than it was two or three years ago. I mean that’s not a huge surprise after going through what we went through, but it’s not enough to just offer people mental health benefits anymore. Employees need to see that you have a company culture and core values that create an environment where they can feel safe talking about their mental health. You cannot overcommunicate on this topic. You can take the opportunity to train managers or form champion groups like mental health first aiders to get the word out about what’s available. But bringing awareness to the foreground starts to break down those barriers and walls people have about being afraid to get help.

What benefits can be offered to support mental health?

Amanda Evans:
For those employers that may be early in their journey of offering mental health support, what would you suggest? Where should they start?

Scot Grooms:
If you have a benefits program and group insurance offered to employees, then more likely than not you have an EAP or an employee assistance program. And EAPs are traditionally underutilized because they’re often bundled into other products like life or long-term disability insurance and often forgot about.

So, I remember when COVID first hit and we were working with employers to provide as many different resources as possible for their employees. And I remember we also came across a study that said 93% of employers were offering an EAP, but almost half of the surveyed workers said their employer did not have an EAP. That kind of brought to light at a very sensitive time the need to really educate the programs that are built-in and often overlooked. So employers have an opportunity to consistently talk about their resources in the EAP, and these often include a few sessions of free counseling for employees and their family members and resources for self-help. It’s a great source of information for employees who don’t know where to start, perhaps.

And another option as well for employers is they can direct contract with an EAP rather than using one that might be built into one of their group insurance products. And this is a strategy to consider if you’re looking for a more robust or enhanced EAP that includes extra features and programs.

Kate Grooms:
We’ve seen a recent huge rise in popularity in the virtual counseling and virtual therapy world, similar to what we saw in telemedicine when the pandemic hit. Employers are starting to see that if they make mental health services available at a time and in a place that’s convenient for employees, then they’re much more likely to use it. And the only thing that’s going to trump convenience in this situation is cost, which is also why we’re seeing so many employers offering this virtual therapy and virtual counseling for a $0 co-pay or cost share. If employees can get a confidential 30-minute therapy session on their lunch break for free, what’s really stopping them from doing it? Nothing. Nothing is stopping them. The easier that we make it, those people that haven’t tried it might be willing to try it. They’re not going to set an appointment, drive in traffic for an hour, or take a half day of PTO, right?

Amanda Evans:
Mm-hmm.

Kate Grooms:
They’re wanting to try it, especially if it’s something they’ve never done before and they’re trying to get comfortable with it.

Benefit trends that support better wellbeing and those that offer family support.

Amanda Evans:
So I do want to come back around. We talked a little bit at the beginning and we continue to talk about this remote work environment. And I think back to the time when COVID hit and I got an email from my daughter’s school saying, “Hey, we’re going to send everything home, because we’re anticipating being out of school for a week or so, but we want you to have everything for a virtual learning environment.” And then fast forward like a year and a half where we were navigating this. There was no separation of work and life, and we were really balancing so much more than what we’ve ever done before. And I work remotely, I think remote work is here to stay, but I also see this need, and employees are telling us loudly and clearly that they want to support in and out of the workplace. So what trends around work-life balance and family support do you expect to see evolve in 2023?

Kate Grooms:
The biggest one overall, and there’s a 100,000 different ways to present this, right, you can call it flexible PTO, discretionary PTO, mental health days, caregiver leave, summer Fridays, whatever you want to call it. Employees need that bank of flexible paid time off that they don’t have to accrue to use and that they feel comfortable using when they need to without any questions asked. It helps support a healthy work-life balance and it doesn’t really matter what it’s for as long as it’s helping take some of the stress off your daily life.

Scot Grooms:
But Amanda, when you were describing where we were a year and a half, two years ago, what have you, the first thing that I think of is how many babies and dogs were in virtual meetings.

Kate Grooms:
Yes.

Scot Grooms:
And how it was okay to show your personal life through working or while you were working because everyone was going through the same thing. And I think that it’s now an extension perhaps back for a lot of businesses to a hybrid approach for either on-site or remote work. But a lot of employers are now kind of seeing that personal life is so important, whatever they might be into, and bringing in a relatively newer benefit into play that’s gained quite a bit of traction over the last couple of years that provides ultimate flexibility, which is lifestyle spending accounts. And these accounts allow employers to offer an allowance, if you will, for employees to be reimbursed for spending money on their wellbeing. And that can be spent in a variety of different ways and crafted and designed for eligible expenses in many ways.

So a recent study says about 70% or so of employers are considering or will have these types of accounts for 2023. So they are employer-funded, typically a defined benefit for the year, say it’s $1000 or what have you, and it’s a taxable benefit for an employee. And then these accounts can be customized to include covered expenses toward physical, financial, or emotional wellbeing.

Kate Grooms:
And wellbeing really is such a broad term, which is exactly why this benefit is so flexible. For some people, wellbeing means a monthly gym membership. For others, it might be ordering healthy meal kits so you don’t eat fast food. For others, it may be hiring a dog walker to eliminate stress and worry on office days. I mean, it can be everything to everyone. Is it easier for employers to just add money to someone’s base pay for these things? Sure. But I’ll tell you my personal feelings on it. If someone adds $1000 to my annual salary, who knows where that extra money goes every month. Probably bills, like all the rest of my paycheck. But when I am offered a dedicated $50 a month to specifically spend on my mental wellbeing, that feels better. And you better believe, that’s what I’m going to be spending it on every opportunity I get. And so to me, that’s money very well spent by the employer.

The power of personalization.

Amanda Evans:
So, on that front of personalization and giving employees the flexibility, what should employers, besides the lifestyle benefit, what should employers be thinking about and doing to really understand and offer what their employees want and need?

Scot Grooms:
One way is to simply ask employees what they want. I mean, obviously, employers do not want to set unreasonable expectations, but gauging employee feedback through surveys or requesting input from midline managers can be invaluable.

Another aspect is understanding the demographics and needs of your employees. So having a workforce where most can set aside money for a health savings account if they’re in a high deductible plan is completely different than a workforce where most folks choose a $6,000 high deductible plan with no financial ability to set aside money for healthcare expenses. So designing appropriate benefits are key as well. The value of benefits also depends on where employees might be in their life cycle. So customizable benefits for different life stages is important to help personalization as well.

Kate Grooms:
And in many cases, it’s not really a discrepancy about what employers offer versus what employees want, but rather I think it involves a lack of communication about what benefits are actually being offered and the employee’s understanding of that offering. People don’t use what they don’t understand is available. That’s what makes the education and communication portion of it so imperative.

What advice would you give employers who are looking to improve their employee benefits in 2023 and beyond?

Amanda Evans:
What advice do you have for employers looking to take their benefits to the next level in 2023 without really breaking the bank?

Scot Grooms:
We’ve talked about this a bit, but just to reemphasize the importance of assessing where you are today and knowing that your unique challenges might need some unique solutions as well. So take a step back and instead of that annual approach of “this is what we usually do,” really assess what’s working, what’s not working. And then from there, start to establish short-term and long-term plans or goals for the benefits program. And there might be a couple of things that we talked about today that you as an organization can incorporate pretty quickly, but some might take several years.

And it’s also very important at this stage, both the assessment and goal-building, to incorporate all facets of your business. So, you need leaders in HR, finance, and in operations working all together in alignment when you start to build these benefit goals. I mean typically it’s your number two, or three spend in the business, so it’s very important that you get all hands on deck with these strategy meetings and start to plot out what everybody considers success. So we love facilitating those discussions. Along the way, everyone has best laid plans in front of them, but as time goes on, there’s going to be a need to pivot and maybe modify your plan a little bit, maybe modify some of these activities. So measuring progress or measuring activity, it’s hard, but the more that you can track during that one, two, five-year process on what’s working and what is not, the better off the benefits program will be and ultimately be successful all around from everyone’s leadership perspective.

Kate Grooms:
And I think it’s worth noting that you can structure and offer the very best benefits program, the Cadillac of benefit programs, but if you’re not constantly communicating these benefits, communicating the value, reiterating what’s in it for you or how this actually affects you, then this program that you’ve put money, time, blood, sweat, and tears into creating for your employees will go underutilized and undervalued. Ask them for feedback, whether you do it anonymously or directly, and take a pulse on how people are feeling. Do it often, and get creative with how you do it. You want to find out how people want to receive information and make employee benefits a two-way conversation. Talk or listen to employees, but never, ever stop communicating with them.

Amanda Evans:
And I think that’s a great point to wrap up on today. Just that comment sticks with me, Kate, make the benefits conversation a two-way conversation. So that’s great advice and this has been a great conversation today. I really appreciate both of you sharing your expertise and I know our listeners are going to get a lot of great information out of this podcast.

So, Scot, Kate, if people want to reach out to you guys, what’s the best way to get in contact?

Kate Grooms:
A good way to connect with me is on LinkedIn. I have a lot of engagement on LinkedIn. I do a lot of posting about relevant topics in benefits and health and wellness, and just kind of how employees are feeling in general. So super active on there, feel free to connect with me. And otherwise, you can visit our website, www.groomsbenefits.com, and there’s a phone number and a web form there if you’d like to reach out.

Amanda Evans:
Well, that does it for today’s episode of For Your Benefits. Thank you again, Scot and Kate, for joining us. And thank you, our listeners, for tuning in. And if you’d like to learn more about SentryHealth, you can check us out on our website at sentryhealth.com. Thanks, everybody. See you next time.

IN THIS PODCAST

G. Scot Grooms, CEBS

Scot is the president & CEO of Grooms Benefits. As a 20+ year veteran advisor in employee benefits, Scot has a passion to help businesses transition their employee benefits from a cost of doing business into a strategic business investment. He is an expert in managing complex, high-functioning benefit programs with innovative and customized solutions. Scot is a Certified Employee Benefit Specialist® and currently sits as President on the board of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the International Society of CEBS®. He is a graduate of the University of Florida.

Kate Grooms, CWWS

Kate is the chief Engagement Officer of Grooms Benefits. With 20 years’ experience in healthcare marketing and communications, Kate brought her creative skills and passion for people to the benefits industry in hopes of helping employees and their families use their benefits as tools for a healthier life – physically, mentally, and financially. She is certified in Workplace Wellness and Mental Health First Aid. Kate is a graduate of the University of North Texas and is also the Founder and Creative Director for benefits communication agency, Hello Benefits™.