Work From Home is Here to Stay. What Does That Mean for Employee Benefits?

In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to burn through communities and workplaces around the country, forcing both employers and employees to fundamentally reconstruct the workplace. Work from home has become standard practice for many jobs that don’t require their employees to perform any kind of physical service or task. New tech has sprung up to address issues that people had previously thought would keep employers from allowing their workforce to move out of the office permanently. For everyone involved in the workforce at the time, the switch to working from home changed a lot. 

For many employees, work from home has been a positive change in their lives, allowing them to spend more time with their families and generally raising their quality of life. But as many employers continue to offer fully remote option and hybrid models, some are confused about what this may mean for their benefits.

Employer sponsored health insurance is of critical importance to many Americans, with around 49% of the workforce getting care through their job. Many businesses sent their employees home so quickly that plans for long term work from home are still being developed well into 2021. During the early stages of the pandemic, many Americans fled from larger cities like New York and Los Angeles for more rural areas. Some did so because they had parents or friends living in areas of the country with a lower population density, and because it was convenient to do so. But now, a high proportion of those who originally moved temporarily are deciding to stay. This has raised logistical issues for organizations who wish to continue to provide healthcare coverage for their employees. Here are some of the main issues that businesses are running into when trying to switch over to providing healthcare to employees who may live in many different sections of the country, and some possible solutions to what seems to be becoming a perennial problem.

Geographically-Based Healthcare Plan Networks

Before work from home became a standard option for many employees, it was fairly easy for employers to secure excellent care for workers who were concentrated in a single population zone, or even whole region of the country. Healthcare insurance companies have most commonly networked with healthcare providers near their physical location, under the (until recently correct) assumption that companies would gather their workforce close to their major bases of operations. Because this is no longer a universally accepted practice, healthcare insurance companies and employers may have to reevaluate the types of healthcare plan networks that they choose for their workforce. 

Because this problem stems from the physical location of the employee, its severity scales with the distance that the employee chooses to put between themselves and their company’s major bases. Healthcare plan networks have often been able to accommodate medical providers in their area who are looking to join the network. For example, healthcare networks based in the north-east U.S. might be able to network with a new medical provider somewhere in that area, but might not be able to work with a new provider in the midwest. Because many networks were created around the assumption that geographical location would continue to be a stable variable, plans will either have to adapt or employers will have to choose different styles of plans in the future. 

Differing Availability and Needs Based on Location

There are a few more problems when thinking about how to construct a national-wide health care plan for a company that plans never to fully go back to the office. 

Healthcare access and cost are not the same all around the U.S., with some areas having fewer doctors who specialize in certain fields, or other areas of the country where healthcare is significantly more expensive. Limited access to doctors or healthcare in general necessitates the increase in use of solutions such as telehealth or telemedicine to provide good alternative resources for people. If your company has a significant number of employees who work in rural areas where a longer drive is needed to go see a medical health professional, a plan that allows them to speak with an expert on the phone can save expensive trips to the doctor, or alert an employee to a possibly critical health issue. 

In the past, some companies have opted to simply offer employees a healthcare stipend to pay for their care in whatever area of the country they choose to live in. However, as more employees disperse across the country, the problems with this option are becoming more and more apparent. Differences in healthcare costs make it difficult to standardize a specific stipend for all employees, and doing so internationally requires an even greater level of research and calculation. 

Remote Health Insurance Plans 

Plans that avoid this locational problem entirely are beginning to crop up around the healthcare world. Although some did exist before the COVID-19 pandemic, most have been founded or modified in response to the global work from home revolution. Some health plans like  SafetyWing are even capable of extending coverage beyond international borders. It seems likely that more companies will be interested in healthcare plans/networks for their employees that are specifically designed to cross borders and break down some of the inherent problems created by localized health plans. 

On the whole, the healthcare industry seems to be in a transitional period as it tries to deal with changes brought on by the work from home revolution. The American healthcare system is incredibly complicated, and one of the main solutions resulting from this high level of complexity is that health insurance companies usually tailor plans to the type of situation the majority of companies find themselves in. If work from home is really here to stay, it seems likely that private insurance companies will once again pivot to create solutions for a radically new situation. 

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