Morgan Health: How employers can take the lead in addressing health equity

There are significant health disparities among people with employer coverage, but plan sponsors still have work to do to fully address those issues, according to a new analysis.

The report comes from Morgan Health, the healthcare arm of banking giant JPMorgan Chase. It identifies some critical disparities in the employer-sponsored sector and suggests strategies employer can use to tackle these challenges.

Dan Mendelson, CEO of Morgan Health, told Fierce Healthcare that the findings should spur plan sponsors to be thinking more about the role they can play in health equity.

"I think that, from my perspective, it continues to be very noteworthy … that Fortune 500 companies are not engaging on issues of health equity in a meaningful way," he said. "And I think that the what the report shows is that these disparities are not improving in most cases and remain very significant."

For example, the analysis found that people in the lowest income group, of $50,000 or less, were the least likely to have a relationship with a primary care provider and instead had the highest likelihood of seeking care in the emergency department.

In addition, lower-income people also take on a greater cost burden and are less likely to receive preventive care, according to the report.

The study is based on data from three national surveys: the National Health Interview Survey, the National Study on Drug Use and Health and the National Vital Statistics System. It tracks trends in different income levels, racial and ethnic groups and sexual orientations.

The analysis found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people were more likely than straight people to be undergoing mental health treatment, 18.8% compared to 4.1%. Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual were also more likely to use illicit drugs, tobacco or alcohol.

That there are significant disparities in maternal health isn't news to the industry, and the analysis underscores that trend. Black and Hispanic patients were more likely to give birth via cesarean section, including for low-risk pregnancies.

What can employers do better to mitigate these challenges? For one, they can offer financial incentives that encourage lower-income workers to seek primary care and preventive services. Firms can also find ways to expand access to mental healthcare, putting a particular focus on lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Employers can also expand maternal health benefits to include doula services and midwifery care, which are both associated with improved outcomes for low-risk pregnancies.

Mendelson said plan sponsors have the data on hand to identify the largest challenges among their populations, they just need to acknowledge they're able to play a role in addressing these disparities.

"In some ways, I get a sense of numbness, that a lot of employers are just not ready to dive into this," he said. "And they have the data, they're just not looking at the data, and they need to be encouraged to get into it."