Coronavirus Gives Workers Wake-up Call, Leads to Surge in Open Enrollment Research

Employees still overwhelmed when making health care decisions but willing to devote more time to the open enrollment process.

The annual open enrollment season is nearly underway, and U.S. employees will be making benefits decisions during an unprecedented and challenging time. To understand employees’ and employers’ feelings about this critical event, Aflac, a leading provider of supplemental insurance and products in the U.S., conducted a national online survey of 1,200 benefits decision-makers and 2,000 employees across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The 2020 Aflac WorkForces Report provides insights into how the pandemic is influencing benefits research and selection in addition to consumer opinions on health insurance and financial security.

Pandemic Underscores Open Enrollment Decisions
According to the survey, nearly half (49%) of employees said the pandemic has been a wake-up call to invest more time researching and selecting the best coverage options for their situation. This represents a significant shift in employee behavior considering a vast majority of employees (92%) choose the same benefits year after year and on average spend 33 minutes on the task – statistics that haven’t changed meaningfully over the years of the survey. However, in light of current events related to COVID-19, about half of employees said the pandemic was a wake-up call to invest more time researching and selecting the best coverage options for them and their families.

“Choosing benefits is one of the most important actions people take each year. And for the past 10 years, our survey found that employees are on autopilot when it comes to the choices they make,” said Matthew Owenby, chief human resources officer at Aflac. “However, COVID-19 has inspired important conversations taking place about the current health care crisis and growing concerns about financial security.”

In fact, one-third (33%) of employees either do not feel confident or are unsure if their health benefits will protect them or their family in the event they are affected by COVID-19. In addition, most employees’ wallets have already been hit by COVID-19: Many (67%) agree they experienced at least a minor financial impact due to the pandemic, and a full third of workers say they experienced moderate to major impacts on their finances.

The most common of these financial impacts include:

  • Loss of funds due to canceled trips or events (42%).
  • Loss of a job or income (36%).
  • Unexpected costs related to caring for a family member (21%), deductibles (18%) and out-of-pocket health care costs (18%).

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Challenges continue with health care costs and decisions
COVID-19 aside, employees continue to worry about their financial vulnerability to unexpected out-of-pocket medical costs. Six out of 10 employees believe their share of medical costs will increase next year, and 54% of employees say they experience anxiety about health care costs that are not covered by health insurance. That sentiment rang true for many: Among the roughly 1 in 5 employees (22%) who reported they or an immediate family member suffered a major health event or accident in the past year, 92% experienced at least one surprise cost.

Unexpected medical costs could weigh heavily on American employees who are not in a financial position to go beyond their current budget. Specifically, 48% of respondents admitted they couldn’t pay $1,000 or more for out-of-pocket expenses without relying on debt or credit if a serious illness or accident occurred today. And those concerns go beyond finances: 46% of workers said they have delayed medical care because of cost concerns.

Expectations of Businesses High
For employers, these pandemic-related challenges will come to the forefront during open enrollment, as employees expect more from their benefits packages. A full 63% expect at least one expanded benefit, such as supplemental insurance or telemedicine, and 45% expressed great interest in insurance that helps offset financial costs related to COVID-19 or other pandemics.

“It’s certainly an encouraging sign to see more than half of workers are expecting more from their benefits package than just health insurance, and employers would do well to listen to their concerns,” said Owenby. “Our survey found that more than one-third (35%) of workers say improving their benefits package is the one thing their employer could do to keep them in their jobs – second only to increasing their pay. The one thing that human resources professionals should take from this information is that satisfying employees of the future will require sustained effort by employers to offer a variety of options that meet employee demand.”

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