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Individualized guidance has the potential to remedy fatigue benefits, helping people not only to avoid the snarls of congestion on a busy road but get the most value out of the journey. (Image: Shutterstock)

When are many benefits too many?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unplanned — an unprecedented — catalyst for expanding employer health benefits. The stresses on employees’ mental and physical health and family well-being exposed by the pandemic’s disruptions placed a historic demand on employer’s to address new and intensified needs. Triggered by issues associated with illness and isolation, self-insured employers and human resources teams responded to that demand with an urgent buildout of benefits, from telehealth to home-care services to companion care. As the sudden withdrawal from social life soared, so did the need for help.

Related: 3 trends driving employee benefits

One thing the pandemic did confirm: employers can provide benefits that respond to shifting demands and employees will look for them. But finding them in this new territory requires guidance.

The mountain of benefits, new and old, has created a confusing landscape, where members are often unaware of the offerings available to them or are frustrated in their effort to access or understand them. Do you remember how difficult navigating benefits was before COVID-19? Multiply that by the plethora of new offerings and it brings you to a place of benefits fatigue, where consumers are exhausted just figuring out how to utilize what’s available to them.

Legacy navigation platforms have only added to the mixed signals confusing consumers, surfacing outdated content like “use your company gym,” though it’s closed due to COVID-19, or “stop by the HR office anytime,” when the entire company has gone remote . The benefits are essential, but their inaccessibility can, ironically, add to the stress they are intended to address. Frequently, members completely give up, leading to poor utilization where they don’t receive any value from the offering.

Employers are consistently trying to find ways to cut health care spending while simultaneously improving outcomes. Given the bureaucracy of our health care system in general, and the benefits explosion, what can they do to make the health care experience simpler and more direct for their members?

Essentially, the challenging geography of expanding point solutions is crying out for a map to help members find their way and inform their choices, with tools that are right for the unproven terrain. As benefits needs have become more complex, the onus is on navigation to simplify the journey. Members navigated old school benefits with the equivalent of a gas station folding map — mailed a 300-page summary plan description and wished good luck in negotiating their way to a destination. The migration to digital navigators has delivered an improved, Google Maps-style approach, providing route options between two points and filters for toll roads and traffic.

But my experience tells me that while automation has the potential to bring more information to consumers, information without guidance isn’t a sufficient map. It leaves people still feeling lost, no closer to engagement with the benefit offering that would best meet their unique needs. The ideal map would start with guidance on how to determine whether any given destination is actually where the member wants to go. That crucial piece of information — getting the member to the right place — seems to be missing. Individualized guidance has the potential to remedy fatigue benefits, helping people not only to avoid the snarls of congestion on a busy road but, ultimately, to get the most value out of the journey. A single resource that helps a member understand, navigate and actually utilize their complete benefits ecosystem offerings is the ultimate goal.

Human assistance is often essential to enable consumers to see the geography and choose their route by asking questions, learning what they need to know and making informed decisions. It is the integration of smart technology and human guidance — which has been a long time coming and it is just beginning to emerge — that holds the most promise.

Health systems, which are often the biggest self-insured employers in their geography, understand the complexities of health care and are committed to providing the best possible service to their patients. Nonetheless, health systems have not fared any better in simplifying the complicated benefits landscape for their employees. With the added professional challenges of being on the pandemic’s frontlines, ironically, these employees are often suffering the most from benefits fatigue. Physically drained and overly stressed, it’s unrealistic to assume that health professionals can find even more time and energy to understand complicated benefit systems.

Some health systems, like Rush University System for Health, have recognized the mounting needs of their courageous and exhausted workforce and are taking steps to simplify engagement. Through a suite of services that can be accessed with the click of a button or the assistance of a human guide, 24 hours a day, RUSH’s robust benefits offering are becoming visible on the map. My company is working with them and others to help members find their way and get the care they need.

The wealth of benefits added during the pandemic is likely to remain or even grow as both employers and their employees continue to respond to changing needs in a new landscape. In order for those benefits to be utilized for their intended purpose and investment, and achieve high rates of engagement and the best possible outcomes, employers need to conquer benefits fatigue with clear, personalized guidance that ensures their members never feel lost.

olivia ross is senior director of clinical partnerships & strategy at Transcarent.


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