Employers eye shifting health care needs during pandemic

Health care costs rise every year, but the nation’s biggest employers still see insurance coverage as an important benefit to provide.

They just struggle getting the health care system to deliver what their workers need, according to Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of the Purchaser Business Group on Health.

Big companies also are adjusting to how those needs have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mitchell’s nonprofit coalition is helping to sort all this out by working with some of the country’s largest employers — think Walmart and Boeing — on the benefits they provide.

Mitchell spoke recently with The Associated Press. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Telemedicine grew tremendously during the pandemic. How do you expect it to evolve for employers?

A: Telemedicine is a great example of something we have been hoping to expand for a very long time. People want both. You can’t do everything over the phone or over email or by Zoom. You need some in-person care. We need to get that balance right, which I think we can.

The other thing we need to look for is are the telemedicine companies going to further fragment care? Are they going to just be another redundant service that isn’t coordinated?

Q: You’ve done a lot of research on ways to cut health care costs and improve quality. What absolutely does not work?

A: Most of what health plans are doing now. Health plan-based care coordination, doctors don’t want it and employees don’t want it. They want coordination to happen within their primary care practice. Those health plans should pay for a nurse at the primary care setting as an example. That would be a much more effective approach.

Q: What do you expect big employers to do more of going forward for mental health care?

A: The big challenge is access to the right care. One approach is having (it) embedded within primary care. Evidence shows that when primary care providers screen for mental health and connect people with mental health professionals, that is one of the most effective ways to make sure they get care they need.

Q: What’s the most radical change employees might see to their benefits in the next few years?

A: More innovative arrangements that go beyond health care. If employees have surgery, (employers) want to make sure they get food delivery and Uber or Lyft, transportation support. How can they do those wraparound services people really need? That’s going to be a growing area.

Q: Health care is expensive. Why do employers continue to offer coverage?

A: My members are the largest employers in the world. They are actively trying to recruit and retain top talent. Benefits can play a big role. They are increasingly expanding those benefits — fertility services, mental health services, financial services — because they want employees to be happy and healthy.

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