Report: Half of Employers Will Not Make Healthcare Cost-Shifting Changes, Shifting Focus to Behavioral Health Services

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Key Insights

  • A new study by Mercer shows that 57 percent of employers will not be engaging in healthcare cost-shifting, which would raise deductibles and copays for their employees, despite the increasing costs of employer-sponsored health plans.
  • Instead of cost-shifting, employers are planning to add additional telehealth and behavioral health services to their employees’ plans.
  • The survey shows growing acceptance for telehealth as a necessary healthcare tool and the willingness of employers to adopt it.

Study: Employer-Sponsered Healthcare Costs Continue to Grow

According to Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans 2020, employers “expect a moderate health benefit cost growth for 2021 of 4.4 percent on average compared to 2020.” This growth is “largely in line with the average annual cost growth over the past six years. Still, health benefit cost growth is now far outpacing the Consumer Price Index and wage growth, which have fallen to nearly zero.”

Increased costs are further complicated by the economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. Despite the pandemic, according to Mercer, “only 18 percent of employers responding to the survey said that they will take cost-savings measures for 2021 that shift more healthcare expenses to employees, such as raising deductibles or copays.”

Even amidst economic uncertainty, 57 percent of employers responding to the survey “will make no changes whatsoever to reduce cost in their medical plans in 2021.” According to Mercer, “this compares to 47 percent making no changes last year, and just 44 percent in 2018.”

Shifting the Focus to Other Resources

In addition to avoiding cost-shifting measures, survey respondents stated they are expanding their employees’ coverage. According to Mercer, “more than a fourth of all respondents (27 percent) and well over a third of the largest employers (37 percent of those with 5,000 or more employees) are adding or improving digital healthcare resources, such as telemedicine for episodic care, artificial-intelligence-based symptoms triage, ‘text a doctor’ apps and virtual office visits with a patient’s own primary care doctor.”

Less than a quarter (22 percent) indicated they would include voluntary benefits, “such as critical illness insurance or a hospital indemnity plan and adding or improving behavioral healthcare resources.” Outside of coverage for behavioral health resources, 59 percent of respondents stated that they “have provided managers with training on how to support employees’ emotional and behavioral health since the onset of the pandemic, or are planning to do so.” 

What This Could Mean for Providers

Telehealth has helped providers and their patients maintain social distancing throughout the pandemic. Mercer’s study shows that employers may increasingly adopt telehealth services and increase their employees’ access to behavioral health services with external resources and internal training.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health issues. A survey by KFF reports increases in the number of patients reporting symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder, with as much of a six percent increase from May to July 2020. 

Studies have shown that patients are 70 percent more likely to “speak with a mental health professional if they could do so virtually.” As the need for mental health services increases and employers expand access to their telehealth and behavioral health services in 2021 health plans, providers may see an increase in the number of patients seeking care for behavioral health issues.

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