Even as COVID-19 cases decline, the pandemic has changed various aspects of how many Arizonans earn a living, ushering in an era of remote working and virtual team meetings. While encouraging a healthier workforce has long been a priority for employers, the pandemic has sparked a renewed focus for many organizations. 

Medical care ranks as the second largest expense (behind salaries) for employers.  Encouraging a healthier workforce may be vital to helping reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, both of which may sap productivity and make an employer less competitive. Complicating matters is an evolving workforce with new priorities for health benefits and work-life balance, plus a changing regulatory landscape with new requirements at the state and federal levels.

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While employees are now using their 2021 benefits, employers in Arizona are making health benefit decisions for 2022. Here are three strategies to consider to help meet the health care needs of employees amid COVID-19 and moving forward:    

Dr. Donna O’Shea, chief medical officer of population health management, UnitedHealthcare.

Help Address Social Determinants. Employers have historically focused on helping improve access to medical care for employees, but social determinants of health, such as housing, access to nutritious food and lack of transportation, influence up to 80% of a person’s health. With that in mind, some employers are investing in programs to help address social determinants of health, seeking to help resolve life factors that may affect overall well-being. Efforts may help employees access low- or no-cost community resources, which may enable people to save on utility bills, prescription drug expenses and even home repair costs; find low-cost, easy-to-use transportation to medical appointments; determine Medicaid eligibility (depending on income); and find local support groups for issues such as depression or anxiety.

Expand Access to Virtual Care and Remote-Patient Monitoring. Most large employers offer at least some type of virtual care benefit to their employees, so it may be helpful to expand coverage for these types of visits and enhance employee awareness of this technology. Company and HR leaders should continue to evaluate the virtual care options currently available to employees through their health plan, local care providers or other virtual service providers. To help make these resources more convenient, some options give employees 24/7 access to virtual visits that may provide medical advice related to a variety of health issues, including allergies, COVID-19, rashes or seasonal flu. For employees with specific health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, new remote-patient monitoring resources may offer access to potentially helpful technologies, including continuous glucose monitors, activity trackers and personalized coaching. By helping provide employees with technology that may offer nearly real-time data to help customize care, employers can support better health outcomes, reduce out-of-pocket employee costs and lower the total cost of care.

Integrated Medical and Specialty Benefits. Many employees may value specialty benefits, such as vision, dental, hearing and disability plans, and employers can offer them with little or no additional cost. In fact, a recent UnitedHealthcare survey found that 84% of employees said having vision and dental benefits is “important.” With growing evidence of a link between overall health and oral, eye and hearing health, and disability and absence care, including in connection to various chronic medical conditions, offering specialty benefits may help encourage whole-person health for employees. Plus, just like with bundled home TV, internet and phone packages, some health care companies are enabling employers to integrate medical benefits with specialty plans. These bundled benefit programs may enable employers to save on medical plan premiums, while simplifying the administrative process, including a single invoice for payment and website login for employees. Rather than having medical, dental, vision and financial coverages administered on different platforms, a bundled approach may enable employers to save time and money – which may help improve health outcomes for employees.   

Employers are in a unique position to help improve the health and well-being of employees. By considering these emerging health benefit trends, employers may help support the well-being of employees amid COVID-19 and as the pandemic wanes.


Dr. Donna O’Shea is the chief medical officer of population health management for UnitedHealthcare.