London, 04 November 2020
Disruption to the delivery of healthcare and lasting changes to work patterns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will have a major impact on both the cost and design of employer-provided health benefits, according to a new report by Mercer Marsh Benefits (MMB).
The sixth annual, MMB Health Trends: 2020 Insurer Survey (formerly known as Medical Health Trends Around the World survey), reveals that 68% of insurers expect increased medical claims driven by COVID-19 diagnostics, care and treatment.
Insurers also said they expect increases in medical costs to continue to vastly outstrip inflation in 2021. In 2019, insurers reported cost increases of 9.7%, which was just under 3 times the rate of inflation. In 2020, they expect a rise in medical costs of 9.5%, which is roughly 3.5 times the inflation rate. For 2021, 90% of insurers expect the trend to sustain or increase.
Commenting on the findings, Hervé Balzano, President, Health at Mercer and Mercer Marsh Benefits International Leader, said: “COVID-19 has had profound effects on all parts of society and the economy, including healthcare. With an expected rebound in elective treatments deferred during lockdown, a rise in negative health issues related to remote working and sedentary lifestyle, including musculoskeletal and mental health issues, and ongoing concerns about the long-term physical and mental health implications of COVID-19, we expect medical costs to continue to increase.”
Mr. Balzano continued: “In order to meet the new challenges posed by remote working and contain expanding costs, companies need to radically rethink the range of benefits they offer their employees and the way in which they deliver them.”
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragility of current employee benefits systems, many of which are paper based and cannot be accessed or managed remotely. With many employers now looking for benefit providers that can offer additional benefits such as mental health, preventive care, and an enhanced range of digital and online services, insurers are increasingly looking to broaden their suite of solutions.
The survey found an increase in the number of insurers offering virtual health consultations, or “telemedicine”, with 59% saying it was an active part of their current approach to plan management, up from 38% in 2019. Furthermore, 55% of insurers now cover preventive health initiatives, such as screenings, with an additional 20% indicating they are experimenting or have developed plans to initiate this within the next 24 months. Employer-sponsored plans will continue to play an important role in providing people with the health services they need. For example, just over half of insurers expect their employer-sponsored plans will cover COVID-19 vaccinations, especially in Latin America.
The survey also found remaining gaps in mental health support, despite the increase in demand seen during the pandemic. For example, virtual mental health counselling is still not widespread, with only one-third of insurers offering it globally while 32% of insurers do not provide plans covering any mental health services. This is despite the fact that in all regions, insurers rate private, employer-sponsored health care systems as more effective than public ones in providing the needed prevention, diagnostics and treatment of mental health disorders.
Chris Bailey, Partner and UK Head of Corporate Consulting, Mercer Marsh Benefits, added: “The severe disruption in the health system caused by the pandemic has meant many people have been unable to access treatment for key conditions such as cancer muscoskeletal and mental health issues. We can expect to see a bounce back from this disruption in 2021. Whilst the return of treatment is welcomed and much needed, releasing the backlog of demand is likely to drive up costs. This will mean further challenges for companies already focused on managing cost and keeping afloat in a tough economy.
Mr Bailey added: “Our survey also shows that there has never been a time when health benefits have been of greater significance and value to employees. Employers without future-ready digital solutions will find it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of a modern workforce. By focusing on delivering services digitally the disruption in services can be managed, treatment accessed, and health and wellbeing enhanced even as the pandemic continues.”
Notes to Editors
The report focuses on employer-sponsored health programmes in 59 countries, excluding the United States, provided between early June and mid-July 2020. This year’s report contains the annual quantitative medical trends table, based largely on data provided by nearly 240 insurers, and added content beyond the financial aspects of insurance coverage.
About Mercer Marsh Benefits
Mercer Marsh Benefits provides clients with a single source for managing the costs, people risks, and complexities of employee benefits. The network is a combination of Mercer and Marsh local offices around the world, plus country correspondents who have been selected based on specific criteria. Our benefits experts, located in 135 countries and servicing clients in more than 150 countries, are deeply knowledgeable about their local markets. Through our locally established businesses, we have a unique common platform, which allows us to serve clients with global consistency and locally unique solutions.