Navigating Benefits

Employee Health Benefits: Past, Present and Future


  • Employee health benefits look different today than they did 20 years ago, when HMOs were most popular

  • Today, there's a focus on prevention and wellness programs, but premiums often cost more and plans can be complicated for employees to navigate

  • A greater use of technology and AI, more personalized wellness programs and combined medical and dental plans are expected in the future

Posted by November 9, 2018

Employee health benefits look different today than they did 20 years ago. Back then, employees had only one or two plans to choose from, and their benefits package wasn’t necessarily seen as the giant recruiting tool it is today.

Here’s an overview of how organizations’ offerings have morphed over the years—and what the future may hold.

Employee Health Benefits of the Past

During the 1990s, employers began offering health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in an attempt to cut back on health care costs for both the company and its employees. Individuals had to see a physician in their network of providers and needed to go to their primary care physician before seeing specialists. Wellness programs were still in their infancy with offerings like smoking cessation and weight loss plans.

By 2008, health care reform was well underway, which affected employee health benefits and created a marketplace for those who weren’t covered by their employer to purchase insurance. In 2015 and 2016, companies with more than 100 and 50 employees, respectively, were mandated to provide employee-sponsored plans, cap out-of-pocket costs and remove limits on the essential health benefits that plans offered. In addition, these organizations had to eliminate medical underwriting, include maternity care and allow parents to keep children on their plan until age 26. Protections were put into place against gender bias in insurance and insurers were barred from turning away those with pre-existing conditions.

What Employee Health Benefits Look Like Now

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a third of all organizations increased overall benefit offerings in the past 12 months alone, with wellness benefits seeing the largest increase. What’s more, at least 77 percent of employers said their wellness program was “somewhat” to “very” effective in reducing health care costs and 88 percent effective in improving employee health. However, premiums are higher than any other time in history.

In a survey of 350 large employers, Castlight, a health navigation company, found the average employer has 14 distinct well-being and health care solution offerings. But the addition of so many options often proves challenging both for employers to manage and employees to navigate.

The top employee health benefits enjoyed by workers today include programs to address sleep, exercise, chronic conditions and smoking cessation, as well as access to services like massages, guided meditation and acupuncture. Increasingly, behavioral health has been at the forefront of employer benefit conversations.

According to the World Health Organization, 450 million people currently suffer from mental health disorders. Approximately 217 million days of work are lost each year due to a decline in productivity related to mental illness and substance abuse disorders, costing U.S. employers $17 billion on an annual basis.

Currently, 89 percent of employees feel their company is supportive of their health and wellness goals. However, high deductible policies—where the average employee pays $1,500–5,000 before insurance kicks in—have created some dissatisfaction among employees and led a number of individuals to avoid care when money is short. Accordingly, recent trends suggest that employers are starting to back away from using high-deductible health plans paired with health savings accounts as a way to control their share of the costs.

Employee-Based Health Care of the Future

Within the next five years, many more wellness programs are likely to get underway, including possible opiate abuse programs as well as stress management and mental health programs for depression and anxiety disorders. Additionally, technology like AI will likely be used to collect employee data and develop more personalized wellness offerings.

Things like telemedicine, standing (or surfing) desks, biometric screenings, onsite employee clinics, nap rooms and wearable tech wellness programs could soon become the norm. The convergence of oral health with overall health will also continue to be discussed and lead toward a trend of embedding dental plans within medical plans. In fact, 96 percent of health care executives believe that the embedding of dental benefits in medical plans is “already happening or will happen eventually.”

Alternatives like dental patient loyalty programs could be introduced in order to allow more patients access to dental health with similar out-of-pocket costs as insurance. Whatever the future brings, the emphasis on improving employee wellness and dental health will be at the forefront of these trends.

Looking to compare different dental plan offerings and find the best program for your company? You can explore available options with the Dental Plan Navigator offered by United Concordia Dental.

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