Employers are offering more cancer benefits. Here's an important key to making sure employees use them

As they make more cancer benefits available to their employees than ever, large employers need to consider offering more help to workers who have been diagnosed with cancer to navigate the maze of options.

On Tuesday, the Northeast Business Group on Health released a guide to help employers do just that.

"Many employers have a variety of vendors and other people internally who can provide health to someone with a cancer diagnosis," said Candice Sherman, the CEO of NEBGH.

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With a "constellation" of different offerings from those vendors, newly diagnosed patients can find themselves fielding calls from different companies including their health plan, a second opinion service, a disability manager, navigation services and wellness coaches. "And a newly diagnosed cancer patient likely isn't in the best of all minds to sit down and figure out all the options that are available to them," Sherman said.

One of the most important ways companies can handle this? Introduce their vendors to each other. 

This is crucial "so they know what the other does and can more seamlessly work together," Sherman said. 

The National Business Group on Health recently released 2019 projections as part of their annual survey of large employers which found companies expect the total cost of providing medical and pharmacy benefits will rise 5% for the sixth consecutive year next year, reaching an average cost of $14,800 in 2019.

Cancer can be a major driver of cost. The NBGH estimates while less than 1% of members in a typical commercial population have claims for cancer in a given year, the claims account for about 10% of all medical costs. Cancer has been the leading cause of long-term disability for nearly a decade and employees often have high rates of absenteeism in the course of their treatment for services like chemotherapy and lab visits. Plus, treatment side effects may compromise their ability to perform day-to-day duties.

Cancer patients could benefit from resources that are already available to them to navigate the fast evolving landscape of cancer care to avoid unnecessary tests and treatments.

RELATED: High cost of cancer treatments puts patients deeply into debt

"One of the things our members have said is: 'Look, we want to provide the best possible care to our employees and their families and we want to get value from those dollars we're spending,'" Sherman said. 

The guide offers employers ideas about how to create a "huddle" with a designated "quarterback" to coordinate employee and family medical benefits along with social and emotional support services. It's also meant to ensure employees or their family members are not left confused by their benefits or simply exasperated by multiple contacts asking for the same pieces of information.

It isn't meant to replace regular coordinated communication above benefits to employees before they get sick, Sherman said.

But establishing better processes once a patient is diagnosed can help ensure benefits are put to their best use by ensuring their employees know not only about support for their clinical care, but also services to help them through the emotional fallout and financial toxicity that a cancer diagnosis can wreak, she said.