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4 Ways Your Existing Health Insurance Can Combat COVID-19

As businesses respond to the pandemic, these powerful employee benefits are already in place

By Megan Ryan | March 24, 2020

Coronavirus

Are COVID-19 tests covered by insurance? What if employees have to be home to care for children whose schools have closed? Does short-term disability cover time away from work due to COVID-19?

These are just a few of the questions employees are asking their HR departments.

“There are so many things to consider during a pandemic, from paying part-time employees to point-of-care services for healthcare to short-term disability inclusions,” said Reed Smith, employee benefits practice leader at BOK Financial Insurance.

Even more difficult, Smith said, is managing a situation that evolves day by day and varies from state to state.

Everyone is moving quickly to react appropriately to the many aspects of keeping employees safe during the pandemic. After initial crucial communications about how to keep themselves and their clients safe, companies should be reminding employees of four main benefits that are already in place.

When employees or family members get ill

Companies should be following and communicating the CDC guidelines to employees, encouraging thorough cleaning and hand-washing to keep employees and customers safe.

If employees think they have been exposed, they should get tested. A recent announcement confirmed that COVID-19 tests are covered as preventative with no co-pay under most insurance plans. Some locations, such as Colorado, are offering drive-up testing options to avoid personal contact.

In a pandemic, these benefits apply to everyone, Smith said.

“Young, healthy employees may not always appreciate the value of their employer’s healthcare benefits as much as they should,” he said.

Be aware of employee rights

State and federal laws and regulations offer protections to employees whose lives may be impacted by COVID-19, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Among them:

  • Employees or their family members who contract the virus and need to be quarantined may be entitled to time off from work under federal or state leave laws.
  • Short-term disability insurance may apply, but policies will depend on the circumstance and may vary in regards to what’s covered, how much time off is allowed, when the benefit kicks in and other factors.
  • Government employees and employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees who have been on the job for at least 30 days will have the right to take job-protected leave. This is intended to be more inclusive than existing protections under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Leave can be used for quarantine, to care for an at-risk family member or to care for a child if schools or child care facilities have been closed.
  • Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees will not be required to pay sick or family leave at the discretion of the labor department.
  • States will get access to emergency grants for activities related to processing and paying unemployment insurance benefits. While unemployment differs from state to state, many states are updating statutes to include “job attached” status for an employee who is expected to return to their most recent employer after a brief separation. Check local regulations for details.
  • Businesses will receive some support through tax credits to cover 100 percent of paid sick or family leave wages paid by an employer. The tax credit is allowed against the employer portion of Social Security taxes; caps and limits apply.

As they establish new policies specific to COVID-19, company leaders should take care to understand the legality of asking health-related questions, just as they would with any other workplace policy, said Katie Patterson, insurance operations manager, employee benefits, with BOK Financial Insurance.

Employers want to be careful to avoid unintentional discrimination, she said.

Federal and state legislatures are working to address employee and employer concerns in these uncertain times. BOK Financial will update this article as new legislation is passed.

"Social distance" your benefits
Person using computer to access telehealth options

Socially distancing may be a new term as we attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19, but telehealth has been on the rise for years.

“We have been advocating for employers to include telehealth services in their employee benefit plans for several benefit enrollment cycles,” Smith said. “You don’t want employees to be sitting next to sick people in a waiting room if you can help it.”

Telemedicine is an effective way to handle social distancing in seeking healthcare, but it’s also an efficient way for employees to get the care they need typically in a much quicker fashion.

In addition to employers with existing telehealth options, major insurance carriers have agreed to offer free telemedicine access to the senior population in an effort to avoid close contact.

Remind employees about assistance programs

An often underutilized component of employee benefit plans is an employee assistance program, or EAP. Companies select varying levels of access for their employees, and EAP offerings often go unnoticed. Now may be a good time for HR teams to remind their people about the benefit.

“Beyond the actual virus, the uncertainty around something like the COVID-19 pandemic causes stress and anxiety for employees,” Smith said. “Everyone will respond differently to the chaos around them and tools like an EAP are extremely valuable benefits.”

BOK Financial Insurance recommends a variety of best practices for companies to consider now and as they are planning for future situations along with additional guidance on regulations.

Insurance products and services are offered by BOK Financial Insurance, a subsidiary of BOK Financial Corporation. Actual employee benefits coverage and services vary depending on group size and number of participants enrolled. Additional fees and exclusions may apply for benefit administration and enrollment technology. The information contained in this article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as professional advice. Please contact BOK Financial Insurance if you have any questions.