Benefits Pro: Ongoing declines in health care literacy fueled by several factors

Several recent trends have had a profound impact on how consumers work, choose whether to change jobs and the ways they access health care: more employers required their workers to return to the office; fears of recession influenced hiring and retention practices; and health care providers left or are considered leaving their clinical practice in record numbers.

Optavise, a provider of voluntary benefit solutions, surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. workers with worker-sponsored health plans to see how these trends affect health care literacy, which it defines as “the capacity to obtain, process and understand the basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

“Our survey found that employees still are not getting the information they need to make informed choices about their health care coverage or how to use that coverage effectively,” the survey report said. Several key findings emerged from the survey:

Today’s employers have an important and growing opportunity to educate their workforce about how to choose and use their health care coverage effectively. Employees are, in general, still relying on less-than-ideal resources for information about their benefits. More than one-third say they teach themselves about terms and processes by going online or reading other materials. Meanwhile, almost half reach out to friends, family and coworkers, who are unlikely to be benefit experts. 

Additionally, 18% reported they received information from a representative of their insurance carrier, while only 27% received their information from their employer’s HR team, which is down from 30% in 2022, itself the lowest percentage reported in the past four years. Only 15% were educated by outside benefits experts.

Clear knowledge gaps exist in certain industries, including education, manufacturing and retail, as well as among younger employees and those who earn less than $50,000. This is likely due to the nature of their jobs; it is difficult, if not impossible, for employers to pull these employees off the worksite for group or one-on-one meetings, and most of these workers do not have the option of viewing benefits information on computers at their desks during the workday.

HR’s direct involvement in benefits education continues to decline, replaced by employers’ increased use of digital tools and social media. Despite the use of a variety of channels to communicate about benefits, employees made the most use of online tools, print materials and email. However, employees did not find these channels particularly useful:

  • Only 68% of employees reported online resources to be very or extremely helpful, compared to more than 80% for one-on-one conversations. 
  • Only 49% reported email to be very or extremely helpful, a significant decrease from 59% in 2022. 
  • Helpfulness of printed materials has remained steady, with around two-thirds of respondents rating them very or extremely helpful. 
  • Group or one-on-one sessions with HR or benefits experts generally were well received by employees, even though employers offered fewer opportunities compared to last year. This likely was due to the logistical challenges inherent in a hybrid work environment. 

More employees report being only slightly or not at all satisfied with their benefits. Fewer report being confident in understanding how their plan works or take the time to compare the costs of medical services or prescription drugs before incurring expenses.

  • When their doctor is not available, respondents increasingly are turning to urgent care facilities when they need medical care. Although these facilities can be more convenient, their cost relative to a typical doctor’s visit depends on their network status. 
  • Although 88% know whether their plan has a network, fewer are checking the network status of their providers. Only about one-third of respondents check whenever they need care, and 43% (down from 48%) check when they are going to see a new provider.
  •  Meanwhile, 85% (down slightly from 87%) of employees report having a primary care physician, while reports indicate it can take weeks or even months to get an appointment, even for existing patients.

Employers have the opportunity to drive better employee engagement with their benefits through targeted communications efforts.

“When required to enroll to keep their coverage, consumers are more likely to reexamine their benefits choices and add additional coverage to fill in gaps,” the report said. “While email and other social media tools are well-received, employees find in-person sessions with benefits experts and HR to be the most helpful, and these channels are more likely to drive consumers to add more coverage to their packages.”

An investment in educating employees about key health care concepts and terms can be the first step in reducing costs for employers and employees alike

“When employees understand how to review their coverage each year, as well as how to compare prices for care and medications and how to check their bills for inaccuracies, they will be more confident in understanding how their plans work, which leads to higher confidence and satisfaction,” the report concluded.

By Alan Goforth | August 02, 2023 at 07:54 AM

Read the full article here.