To Battle Inflation, Employees Are Forgoing Healthcare

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Posted by: CMR April 24, 2023 No Comments

What does inflation have to do with healthcare? As far as consumers are concerned, just about everything. 

The cost of healthcare is not immune to historic levels of inflation: A recent report by WTW predicts that global healthcare benefit costs will jump 10% in 2023. Coupled with rising consumer prices, and unaffordable healthcare can have troubling and swift impacts. According to a Gallup survey, high costs led 38% of Americans to postpone medical care in 2022.

Sean Duffy is co-founder and CEO of Omada Health, a digital-first chronic care provider that works primarily with self-insured employers to help employee bases access affordable, digital care to better manage their health at home, as well as complement existing networks of providers. Members have access to Omada’s health and care coaches and can contact them for insight and guidance — and these coaches, Duffy says, started to see the stress of inflation take hold of members quite some time ago. 

“Our coaching community was detecting it before it became a big news story,” Duffy says. “It really piqued our attention, and we started studying what happens to care in an inflationary environment — and the research is scary. Because people are going to prioritize getting food on the table over a doctor visit.” 

The solution, as Duffy sees it, is twofold. It starts with clear communication from employers to their employee base about benefit packages, particularly what care is available to employees at no cost. 

“The average person just does not know what is or is not covered by their medical benefits, and there are a whole host of preventative services that really are $0,” he says. “So that’s an education thing where employers and programs like Omada can support members: Look, don’t forget that these check-ins and services are covered. Remind people they’re not going to be left with a copay.” 

He encourages C-suite leaders to kick-start discussions around benefits, even if just to let employees know they’ll be hearing more details from a benefit adviser or solution-provider. That, he says, will instill an early sense of trust in future communications coming from healthcare partners. 

Education is another tool in giving employees tangible ways to better manage their wallets as inflation continues to challenge the economy. While healthcare communications are vital, consumers are looking for ways to trim costs without sacrificing their health now, and that often comes down to day-to-day concerns and expenses. 

Through Omada’s platform, members have access to topic-based digital communities, one of which is called Healthy Eating on a Budget. As inflation has picked up pace, Duffy and his team have seen membership to that community more than double, and questions flood in about ways to maintain at-home health when grocery bills are feeling unmanageable. 

“People were coming to us, saying, ‘Shoot, food is so expensive and prices are just going up.’ So we really worked with our care coaches to make sure they were able to provide evidence-based advice to help our members,” Duffy says. “People were worried about protein prices, for example, and were wondering how to maintain a balanced diet. But a lot of people don’t realize that beans are loaded with protein — per unit of dollar value for protein, it’s one of the highest. So maybe there’s an opportunity to cut back on steak, and consider more cost-effective ways to maintain your diet.” 

Duffy says his team has also worked to educate members on the value of frozen vegetables, which often get a bad reputation but in reality are packed with nutrients. Dispelling food myths can help people achieve economic optimization of nutrition, though Duffy recognizes that frozen vegetables are far from a cure-all for overwhelming inflation and healthcare costs — which are only expected to keep climbing. 

“This negotiation cycle between healthcare providers and plans is going to be tense, because the average provider has seen their labor, materials and supplies costs increase, and COVID subsidies have stopped,” Duffy says. “When I talk to my friends on the plan side, these providers are asking for 15-20% rate increases. And maybe they’ll meet in the middle at a 5-6% increase, but what that means for self-insured employers is, I anticipate for 2024, one of the most dramatic rate increases we’ve seen in a long time.”

Keeping employees and consumers focused on their health — and feeling like they can afford to be — will require a multi-pronged approach. Helping end-users find balance between their many financial stressors, including their health, will require a consistent communications strategy, buoyed by the tools and resources to help them find easier, more affordable ways to access care. 

“There is no silver-bullet solution, and anyone who tells you there is is not being authentic,” he says. “A food-tracking app alone will not work. Setting someone up with a coach alone will not work. A remote device shipped to your door alone will not work. We’re working to make the solution feel valuable and interesting at a consumer level.”

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Stephanie Schomer, Editor-In-Chief, Employee Benefit News

Author: CMR

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