What the Federal End of the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency Means for Employee Benefits
The COVID-era regulations that have shaped employee benefits for the last few years are coming to an end on May 11, 2023.
That’s the ‘official’ end of the pandemic in the U.S., according to the resolution President Biden signed on April 10 announcing the end of the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE). This ushers in yet another ear of change as employers reassess their benefits plans. What pandemic-era benefits do they keep by choice, and which should go theway of the elbow-bump hello?
As with everything when it comes to COVID and work, nothing is settled in stone— but here are five changes that employers are preparing to make to their employee benefits plans now that the Covid-19 PHE is ending.
What Did the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency Do?
The Covid-19 PHE first launched in January 2020 and was renewed thirteen times over the course of the pandemic. Initially, the legislation led to many changes in how employers offered employee benefits. Some changes were temporary, like offering expanded telehealth coverage and allowing employees to use their health insurance to pay for Covid-19-related expenses. Other changes were more permanent, like increasing the number of employees who are eligible for remote work.
Under the PHE, most private health insurance plans offered to employees through their employee benefits plans were required to cover COVID-19 tests and vaccines without cost-sharing or prior authorization. The PHE also allowed for more leniency when it came to joining or leaving employer-sponsored health plans. For example, employees who lost their coverage due to involuntary termination of employment or layoffs could enroll in their former employer’s plan outside of the regular open enrollment period.
Five Changes Coming to Employee Benefits Plans When the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency Ends
Ending the PHE will mean that some of the changes made during the pandemic will be undone while others become permanent. Employers should consult with their employee benefits providers and the newly published FAQ sheet from the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury to ensure they are prepared for all the nuances and changes coming their way.
On a high level, here are five big changes coming to employee benefit plans in the post Covid-19 PHE era:
- Coverage for COVID-19 Testing, Treatments, and Vaccines
Employees may no longer be able to use their health insurance to pay for Covid-19 testing and treatments, but it will vary by plan. Many suspect private health insurance plans will continue to cover in-network vaccinations and tests through cost sharing programs. The federal government has also taken several steps to ensure that employees will retain access to free or low-cost COVID-19 testing, treatments, and vaccines in thewake of this change. Vaccines covered by the federal government’s Vaccines for Children program will be free for all children ages six months to eighteen years. For adults, the federal government is still working on a plan to make sure that all Covid-19-related resources are affordable.
- Paid Family and Medical Leave
During the pandemic, many employers were required to provide paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). While these requirements expired on December 31, 2020, many employers continued to take advantage of tax credits for voluntarily continuing to provide paid sick leave or paid family leave for COVID-19 related reasons. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25%of all private industry employers created or modified sick leave or paid time off plans because of the pandemic, with most employers choosing to add paid leave days to their paid time off policies.
Now that the PHE is ending, many employers are continuing to offer more paid family and medical leave to their employees. Some of the most popular benefits include paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, paid leave to care for a sick family member, and paid leave to recover from a serious illness.
The pandemic has also led to an increase in the use of telehealth services, which allows patients to consult with healthcare providers online or by phone. This is particularly convenient for patients who live in rural areas or who have difficulty getting to a doctor’s office. The federal government has already extended several telehealth-related coverages for Medicare recipients through 2024, however, private insurers may impose cost-sharing or prior authorization requirements after the PHE ends in May.
Because of the surge in popularity of telehealth services, many employers are now offering telehealth benefits to their employees in their employee benefits plans. A recent study by Business Group on Healthfound that 76% of employers accelerated telehealth and virtual health offerings since the start of the pandemic.
- Remote Work and Flexible Schedules
The PHE never explicitly required employers to send their employees home, but many employers expanded their remote work options out of necessity to protect their employees. According to a 2020 Employer Survey Report by Willis Towers Watson, 46% of US employers increased flexibility for remote work. Employers continue to reassess whether or not telecommuting is right for their business. Some employers are making the decision to revert back to in-office only arrangements, while others are choosing to keep their remote options but make them more restrictive. Many employers are finding that fully remote work is more productive and cost-effective.
Many employers are now offering more flexible work schedules to their employees, too. This is in recognition of the fact that many people have had to juggle work and family responsibilities during the pandemic.
- Mental Health and Wellness Benefits
Mental health and wellness benefits have become increasingly important for employees during the pandemic. Despite the PHE only increasing flexibility for mental health telehealth benefits for Medicare recipients, the pandemic accelerated the overall need for a more open dialogue and greater research into mental health and wellness for everyone. Employers are responding by offering more mental health and wellness benefits to their employees. According to KFF’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey, 39%of employers have made changes to their mental health benefits.
Some of the most popular benefits include free or low-cost counseling services, unlimited paid time off for mental health days, and access to mental health and wellness apps.
These lightenedregulations certainly do not signal a return to pre-pandemicworkplace practices. Many of the relief measures put in place during the pandemic, such as increased paid time off and remote work options, are likely to become permanent fixtures in the post-pandemic workplace. This means employers will need to continue refining their approach to employee benefits to stay up-to-date with the workforce’s expectations..
Protecting the health and wellness of youremployees with a benefitsprogram can make yourbenefitsstrategymore competitive. If you need a potential wellness program for your company, talk to a wellbeing specialistat Gympass to learn more about the many health benefits we offer. With access to thousands of gyms and dozens of wellness health apps, allowing you to support the mental and physicalwellness of your employees at work and at home.
The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.