2 Chattanooga Human Resources experts discuss what prospective employees look for in a health benefits package

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In general, how important are comprehensive health benefits in attracting and retaining talented employees?

Employee benefits are more important than ever. Our clients across most industries continue to lament the difficulties of hiring and retaining high-quality talent, a trend that started in earnest during the initial COVID-19 spikes and responses. Health care, manufacturing, technology and education appear to be among the most heavily-impacted industries.

Have employee expectations regarding health care benefits evolved or changed in recent years? How so?

Employees are getting more confident with technology and their ability to source their own information; and they expect the same from their employers.

This isn't to say that insurance isn't an important component -- in many ways, it is still the most important piece. That said, employees want more and better ways to interact with the health care world.

The good news for employers is that this can often be accomplished in ways that are not overly burdensome or costly to implement.

What are some current trends in employee health care benefits, and how are companies adapting to these changes?

The two biggest barriers to health care for most Americans are access and cost. One trend involves accessing care through non-traditional (insurance-based) avenues. For example, our clients have benefitted from pulling primary care out of the health insurance through direct contracting relationships and direct primary care (DPC).

Doctor appointments can be hard to schedule, then are often short, impersonal and costly. Yet the primary care relationship is the most critical juncture of health care. We listen to our doctors, we take their advice, and go where they recommend for next-tier services.

If this relationship is ineffective or not in place at all, employee health suffers. Through direct contracting and DPC, employees can get unlimited and near-immediate access to their own doctor.

Another trend is carving out pharmacy benefits and managing prescriptions through a third party. This enables employers to achieve savings through rebates, discounts and manufacturer programs, while maintaining better control over prescriptions.

We know health care costs are increasing, but the pharmacy component is increasing even faster. This strategy allows employers to exert more control over the process, and ultimately, the total spend.

Most employers are also grappling with the rising trend of drugs like Ozempic and Mounjaro. They're expensive and carriers don't want to cover them, but employees want access to the drugs.

Are more companies adopting telehealth services? What are the trends in this area?

Telehealth is included in nearly every employer health plan sold today, but there are complications. If it's difficult to access, has a cost similar to a copay, and is impersonal, our data shows that employees don't use it.

But we are just at the beginning of what telehealth can look like. We work with a local company that has developed a program that removes the worst barriers to telehealth, and brings in the best benefits of a direct primary care program, with an affordable price. They are looking to innovate and expand services offered.

Is there a growing trend in providing support and resources for mental health wellness? What are some initiatives companies are taking in this regard?

The pandemic made clear something we always knew but didn't want to admit: The U.S. has a mental health issue.

In our opinion, there are many reasons for this, but the reality is that getting access to care is difficult. There is a much higher demand than the provider pool can support. This leads to long wait times, which is a critical flaw when someone is in emotional turmoil.

We are seeing some success with telehealth-based mental health services. It's not perfect, but we believe the future is bright. We really are just at the beginning of this movement, and more tools are coming to the market all the time.

Austin Jett is a senior partner with Baldwin Risk Partners, also known as Russ Blakely & Associates. A Chattanooga native, Jett specializes in helping employers maximize the return on their employee benefits programs.

Nick Davis is an advisor with Baldwin Risk Partners. A lifelong resident of Chattanooga, he has dedicated his career to the benefits industry, assisting employers in resolving benefits issues.

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