UnitedHealth Group has paid out $23.8M in emergency child care benefits due to COVID-19. Here's why

The outside of UnitedHealth Group's headquarters
UnitedHealth Group has launched a new child care benefit program for its employees due to COVID-19. (UnitedHealth Group)

Charina Toste found out on a Thursday in mid-March that her four-year-old son’s school year was over. 

Toste, a nurse practitioner at an OptumCare cancer clinic in Las Vegas, was left scrambling to find someone to watch him as she continued to work full time seeing oncology patients despite the pandemic. 

The time crunch was just one challenge—her son has autism and requires specialized care. 

“It was extremely challenging, and it got to the point where I would go, ‘If I don’t find somebody, I can’t go to work,’” she told FierceHealthcare. “It was just that much of a commitment.” 

By Monday, Toste learned that UnitedHealth Group launched a program for its employees that will reimburse them for emergency child care to the tune of $100 per day. 

RELATED: UnitedHealth to offer $1.5B in financial support to members, including premium credits 

The healthcare giant is offering the program nationwide to employees who need emergency child care for kids aged 12 and under. The money covers last-ditch child care needs such as hiring a neighbor or family member to watch them for a day. 

UnitedHealth Group has paid out $23.8 million through the program, accounting for 238,000 days of child care to date. 

Jaime Erickson, vice president of benefit administration and employee experience at UnitedHealth Group, told FierceHealthcare the organization previously offered child care and eldercare benefits to its employees. But the unique challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic meant the company needed to go further. 

She said her team stood up the emergency child care program basically overnight because it was clear there was a need. The funds will be available through the end of May, and UnitedHealth is evaluating further expansion into the summer. 

“It’s been an investment that we’re making for our employees and their families,” Erickson said. 

 RELATED: Survey—COVID-19 pushing employers to evolve health, wellness benefits  

Erickson said that the program is largely being adopted by clinical and front-line workers. As of late April, UnitedHealth paid out $8 million to clinical workers, $6 million to front-line workers and $2 million to administrative workers, she said. 

Initially, UnitedHealth Group planned to limit the number of days covered under the program to 15 but chose to nix that cap due to need, she said. 

“What's really amazing about this benefit is, one, how quickly we were able to stand it up and make this benefit available to the entire organization,” Erickson said, “but also the feedback and the stories that we’ve heard from our employees basically sharing with us that if we didn’t have this emergency backup care component … a number of our front-line employees would have really struggled to get to work.” 

Toste said that thanks to the program she was able to cover the cost of scheduling her son’s regular tutor—who was out of a job as a special needs teacher once school ended—to care for him. Not only did that ensure he was cared for while Toste was working, it also allowed her to maintain his continuity of care, which is critical for a child with special needs.

That her employer was able to turn around such an offering is such short order proves they’re hearing the needs of workers on the ground, she said. 

“This was such progressive thinking in real time,” Toste said. 

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