Emergency preparedness lessons for employers from COVID-19

Employer benefits and human resources professionals should glean key lessons on emergency planning from the COVID-19 pandemic—and a new guide from the Northeast Business Group on Health aims to help set a baseline for those discussions.

The paper outlines seven key action steps employers should take to strengthen their COVID-19 response and prepare for a future pandemic situation that can be deployed now, the group said.

“The experts say it is not a question of if but when a future pandemic will occur. And while it’s impossible to be 100% prepared for future pandemics, employers can enhance their preparedness," said Candice Sherman, CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health, in a statement.

"The guide gives employers the resources and information they need to be better prepared,” Sherman said.

RELATED: How COVID-19 is changing the way HR professionals think about employee benefits

The action steps in the report are:

  1. Build a pandemic response around key principles such as simplicity.
  2. Establish safe workplaces.
  3. Enhance employees' experiences working from home.
  4. Have a strong plan in place for returning to work.
  5. Adapt workers' benefits to address challenges posed by the pandemic.
  6. Develop a vaccine strategy.
  7. Think about future pandemics now.

For example, COVID-19 highlighted the value of digital health and also led to a spike in demand for behavioral health care needs. Strategies to mitigate these challenges include extending eligibility to digital platforms to employees' family members who may not be enrolled in the plan themselves as well as offering those tools to part-time workers who may not qualify for benefits.

Employers must also closely assess the accessibility of these in-demand options in their benefit designs, according to the report. This includes taking another look at network adequacy and out-of-pocket costs for employees.

RELATED: Large employers embrace on-site clinics despite challenges posed by COVID-19, survey shows

A solution to these challenges employers could pursue, according to the report, is investing in value-based insurance design. This strategy allows plan sponsors to lower out-of-pocket costs for services with high value and raise costs for services with low value, pushing people to seek more appropriate care.

"Stakeholders recognized early in the pandemic that out-of-pocket costs could affect peoples’ decisions about getting necessary care for the coronavirus," according to the report. "In addition to highlighting the need to reduce or eliminate patient costs for certain high-value care, the pandemic has created an opportunity to learn what happens when there is a dramatic decline in utilization of both high-value and low-value healthcare services."

Developing a vaccine strategy also requires employers to overcome a number of hurdles, including access, health literacy and social and cultural norms, that may prevent people from getting vaccinated.

To address these challenges, employers should be prepared to launch an education campaign to ensure employees feel safe getting vaccinated. Then, if possible, set up an on-site vaccine opportunity or other vaccination events.

If that's not doable, instead make sure employees are aware of and can access nearby vaccination locations, the report suggests. Employers can set up automatic reminders for vaccines and offer rewards and incentives to drive greater uptake.

“Having a vaccine strategy for employees needs to be one of the highest priorities for employers. As one of the few remaining institutions in which Americans still have some degree of confidence and trust, employers have an important role to play in disseminating accurate education and information about vaccines, and engaging employees and their families in obtaining them,” said Mark Cunningham-Hill, medical director at the Northeast Business Group on Health, in a statement.