Large employers embrace advanced primary care in 2020: NBGH survey

As employers make their approach to health benefits an integral part of their overall workforce strategy, many are turning to emerging options such as advanced primary care, a new survey shows. 

The National Business Group on Health (NBGH) released Tuesday its annual look at large employers’ healthcare and plan design strategies and found that 49% are planning to deploy at least one advanced primary care strategy in 2020. 

Notably, 34% said they were rolling out on-site primary care or near-site health centers in 2020, and an additional 18% said they were considering those options heading into 2021 and 2022. 

In addition, 24% said they were designing plans that would steer employees toward physician-based accountable care organizations or high-performance networks, according to the survey.

Although primary care is often less expensive than other healthcare services, it can make up much of an employer’s costs, NBGH Chief Strategy Officer Ellen Kelsay said during a briefing with reporters.

“Employers are really looking to do something different at the primary care level and move away from fee-for-service episodic care to a whole-person view of managing health,” Kelsay said. 

RELATED: With expected 6% rise in healthcare costs, 2020 may be the year of the ‘activist’ employer 

This trend is just one example of employers taking on a more “activist” role in managing healthcare as costs continue to rise. NBGH noted similar findings in last year’s survey

Other focus areas for these efforts include mental health and orthopedics.

In the latter case, employers are turning more frequently to centers of excellence, with 47% implementing one in 2020 and 80% either rolling one out or considering one in 2021 or 2022. 

Employers are also addressing the costs associated with fertility and maternity care increasingly through centers of excellence, the study found. 

For behavioral health, employers are taking a multipronged approach that aims to boost access while also addressing the stigmas that are still associated with these conditions. For 2020, 33% said they will have a behavioral health counselor on-site, up from 25% in 2019, and 9% said they would offer a zero or limited copay for certain mental health medications. 

Plus, 48% said they would be running an internal anti-stigma campaign and 47% would train managers to better recognize the signs of behavioral or mental health issues so they could direct workers toward needed services. 

RELATED: Employees want well-being programs that support mental, financial health, NBGH survey finds 

Brian Marcotte, CEO of NBGH, said this work is emblematic of employers’ focusing more on whole-person health instead of solely on physical wellness. 

A large number (69%) of employers said they would provide online resources such as applications or webinars to workers in need of behavioral health services. This push is part of a larger and continuing focus on expanding virtual health options, the survey shows. 

More than half (51%) said implementing additional virtual care solutions was a top priority for 2020. This is despite the fact that many employers see a saturated market for health tech and that it can be hard to incentivize employee uptake, Kelsay said. 

Many are relying on health plan and pharmacy benefit manager partners to assist in identifying the right tools and positioning them to boost patient access. Forty-one percent said this was their main approach to adopting new solutions—taking them as their partners identify them. 

“They feel as though they need to explore every avenue to address access challenges,” Kelsay said.