Rookie Year: Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave

As seen in the New England Benefits Council (NEEBC) blog.

We are one year into eligible Massachusetts employees being able to apply for paid leave benefits under the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program.  Although stats for the MA PFML Rookie Year have not been released yet, the first six months were telling:Paid Family and Medical Leave

  • Over 53,000 applications, with 23% being denied
  • 58% of applications were related to medical leave and the remaining for bonding, given that care for a family member with a serious illness was not yet a covered reason
  • Only 18 applications for military exigency leave and 6 applications to care for a service member
  • Employees aged 30-39 submitted the most applications (35%) and more than twice as many women applied for leave, compared to men
  • Average weekly benefits were $705.98 for family leave and $699.00 for medical leave
  • Turnaround times, once the Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML) received all data including employer responses, took a median of 12 days to make a claim determination
  • Average duration of leave was 53 days (57 days for medical leave and 51.5 days for family leave)
  • Total benefits paid was equal to about $168 million (about $92 million for medical and $76 million for family leave)

While we await data for season of 2021, let’s dissect the highs and lows and see if MA PFML has a shot at Rookie of the Year!

Let’s start with the highs:

  • The plan appears to be running at a sustainable level with sufficient funding, indicated by a reduction in contribution rates, which is good for residents of the Commonwealth.
  • Employers were able to successfully create private plans without significant hurdles in the process, allowing MA firms to continue their history of rich benefit designs without negatively impacting corporate plans.
  • Massachusetts has been a strong example of early and broad education of the program. Individuals in the state were told about benefits that may be available to them in plenty of time before the program went live, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and better understand what their experience might be in the case they need leave. The state hosted various webinars to different audiences, providing real time information and continuous updates on the status of the program’s launch. The website houses a multitude of helpful information and is continually updated. For questions not answered in these channels, individuals may also call the DFML for benefit questions or the Department of Revenue (DOR) for questions concerning private plans or contributions, and the state is typically always able to answer even in-depth questions.

While the state has had multiple home runs implementing a PFML program, just like evaluating Rookies of the Year like Jonathan India and Kyle Lewis, we need to think of the swing-and-a-miss situations as well.  The most significant strike for the MA PFML was their system:

  • The system for PFML administration continues to lag with the most significant unexpected deficiency likely related to their inability to handle intermittent leaves which are the most challenging and frustrating for employers.
  • Employer access was an obstacle, leaving employers without the ability to “monitor” claims or have insight into the status at a time when COVID claims and time away from work were skyrocketing.
  • Another systematic issue was linking contribution with plans. Since contributions are due at the close of the quarter, claims could be reported prior to contributions being paid. Unfortunately, those triggered denials as employers struggled to notify the state, register and swap from private plans to the state plan. Employees were given conflicting information as employers tried to resolve this gap in “coverage.”

Just like anyone’s first year in the pros, our first year with MA PFML threw us curveballs we did not expect, and as a result, we have learned some important lessons. The ever-evolving landscape of PFML laws has put pressure on employers with employees across the country, as they try to meet employee needs while balancing corporate responsibilities and equity. As we all become more seasoned players in this complex game of leave, Spring has outlined some best practices for employers handling PFML :

  • State plans should act as guidance for internal company policies. Mimicking a state plan could be restrictive as new programs emerge and existing programs evolve.
  • Have a clear understanding of the definition of eligible employees under each statutory and/or federal law. Someone considered an employee in Massachusetts may not be considered an employee in Connecticut (e.g., 1099 contractors).
  • All leave policies should be run concurrently, to the extent possible. The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will generally run concurrently with MA PFML and other PFML laws when an employee meets the eligibility conditions of both plans.
  • Private plans offer the most flexibility with plan provisions and aligning leave with other corporate leaves, however state plans seem to be simpler administratively. Carefully weighing these pros and cons is key to developing an adaptive leave program.

The replay we are watching the most, however, is that COVID-19 significantly increased the complexity of such a program. The need for leave has been exacerbated. Difficulty hiring employees has affected employers who must keep up productivity while more employees are away from their jobs, and the state had to administer a new leave program under less-than-ideal conditions. In addition, the tremendous growth of remote work has made it difficult for employers to determine where an employee may be eligible for leave.

Overall, workforces are evolving and regulations at the local, state and federal level need to be continually monitored. As we see benefits become available under new programs, such as CT PFML, and other states pass bills to develop PFML programs, such as New Hampshire and Maine, employers will need to assess their strategies and evolve accordingly.

Can Health Advocacy Help Piece Together the Healthcare Puzzle?

Dazed and Confused

Think about your last visit to the doctor. Did you know what questions to ask? Did you leave with a clear picture of the next steps or alternative options? Did you know the cost of your appointment and treatment path before starting it, or what would be covered by your health insurance? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you are certainly not alone.Health Advocacy Tools

Bend Financial[i] recently conducted a survey that showed that only 29% of people were completely confident in their ability to navigate the healthcare system, whereas 56% were entirely confused when it comes to health insurance. Unfortunately, an alarming subset of consumers opt to avoid healthcare completely, too defeated by the complexity.

Beyond health insurance, employees must navigate the suite of benefits offered to them by their employer. While these are meant to provide support, they can cause more confusion when employees are looking for assistance. Employers must consider how introducing a new program or benefit will fit into their overall strategy and integrate the resources, without adding to the complexity employees face.

Breaking Through the Fog

Advocacy tools have popped up as a response to the confusing environment. These tools offer a wide variety of clinical, educational and administrative resources, such as:

  • Helping members understand test results or treatment plans
  • Advocating for members with complicated conditions and managing their care
  • Coordinating care at inpatient facilities
  • Identifying top providers
  • Arranging second opinions
  • Providing information about alternative prescription options
  • Assisting employers to understand health risks through biometrics, claims and other data
  • Developing customized Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other life coaching services
  • Reviewing medical bills and allowing for transparency of costs
  • Facilitating prescription drug delivery
  • Assisting with wellness goals
  • Accessing telemedicine
  • Booking appointments and sending reminders
  • Optimizing HSA, FSA and HRA accounts
  • Integrating with other vendors offered by the employer

The landscape for these platforms is robust and ever-changing. The spectrum of vendors include those that offer:

  1. A holistic approach. Major players may provide all of the above features in a one-stop shop model for employees.
  2. Preventive approach. Some vendors focus on prevention of common conditions, encouraging employees to get annual eye exams, diabetes screenings, cancer screenings, medication adherence, and more.
  3. Targeted approach. This last category of vendors specialize in support for employees with common chronic conditions including diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. While likely not the most costly conditions, the potential for savings and member support is significant when factoring in the volume at play. These vendors aim for condition management by giving members the tools to monitor and manage their conditions better on their own, hopefully necessitating less emergency care in the future.

    Comparatively, other tools focus only on the highest cost conditions and members, such as cancer diagnoses. Offering a specialized tool for members going through this difficult time enables them to procure the best and most cost-effective care, while also giving them access to resources related to nutrition, mental health, and more.

While available on a standalone basis, advocacy solutions may also be accessible to employers through their insurance carriers, Third-Party Administrators (TPAs), or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Programs embedded with a carrier or TPA tend to focus on overall health management programs, disease management and wellness, as well as resolving billing issues and comparing costs of providers.

A commonality across platforms is the prioritization of the consumer experience – offering easy, self-service access in mobile apps or online portals. Members typically have a single point of contact at the advocacy company, so they know who to call and do not have to navigate being transferred or having an unfamiliar staff member pick up their case.

Overall, for employees, health advocacy platforms may:

  • Help them get the most out of their insurance plans and programs
  • Cut through the clutter of healthcare
  • Promote health and productivity
  • Increase preventive behavior

For employers, health advocacy tools can:

  • Cause an uptick in employee engagement and satisfaction
  • Increase health plan utilization.
  • Yield savings in healthcare costs by allowing employers to better understand cost drivers,
  • Facilitate the creation of more informed preventative and wellness programs and ultimately lead to a healthier population

Advocacy Adoption: Is It Right For You?

Ultimately, it is up to the employer to determine what programs would best support their employees. Based on the 2020 Integrated Disability Management (IDM) Employer Survey conducted by Spring Consulting Group, 61% of employers offer a health advocacy solution today, compared to only 41% in 2018. Determining which model and which vendor to select can be difficult as there are many players in the market. In assessing whether an advocacy tool would be a good fit for your organization, any decision around advocacy solutions should be tied to program objectives.

  • Are you primarily concerned with cost savings?
    • Health advocacy solutions can provide cost savings to employers or health plans, as they direct employees to access only necessary healthcare services, perhaps at a lower cost facility than they otherwise would have used. A tool like this should, in theory, help avoid bigger, high-cost problems down the road by assisting the employee with addressing issues early. Certain vendors may even offer a cost savings guarantee. However, it will take time to see a possible Return on Investment (ROI). On the flip side, an advocacy solution can encourage greater utilization, such as for behavioral health services. While a higher utilization rate may mean increased claims, giving employees tools to access the services they need can lead to less emergent or high-cost care down the road. As such, you should determine if you are looking for immediate or long-term results.
  • Are you looking for higher engagement in your health and benefits plans?
    • There is a lot of logic behind the argument that an advocacy tool will increase engagement. However, if an employer has had trouble engaging employees in the past, such as in wellness challenges, incentives, education, etc., nothing is guaranteed. Vendors claim that anywhere from 30% to 80% of employees will participate in their program, but this is highly variable based on different aspects of the program and the employer, such as program features or employer incentives.
  • Are you focused on population health management?
    • By equipping members with the necessary tools to make health care decisions based on value and outcomes, better outcomes are achieved. The plan data will guide your decision related to population health management. For example if you are struggling with diabetes specifically, you may want to consider a targeted point solution focused on diabetes management before committing to a more comprehensive program that tends to be more expensive.
  • Are you hoping to improve the employee experience?
    • With an advocacy tool, members have support to mitigate confusion around healthcare services, surprise billing, complex diagnoses…but it only works if members leverage the support. Programs should be communicated often and where possible linked to activity within the plan. We always recommend eliciting employee feedback before launching a program such as this, to ensure you are solving for problems that really exist for employees, instead of problems you think exist for employees. Sometimes our clients even roll out a smaller pilot program as a test before implementing the wider solution for the whole organization.

 

Most organizations will have a few different goals at play, which are not limited to those listed above, but typically there is a hierarchy to consider. Working with a trusted advisor can help to understand key differences and ensure programs are designed to work for the employer and their employees. At Spring, we routinely help employers vet solutions to find the one that is optimal for their goals and population.

Conclusion

Overall, health advocacy tools have risen in popularity for a reason. They address critical problems in our healthcare system – confusion, expenses, access, lack of trust – and serve as a different avenue for employers to limit the rising costs associated with healthcare. Advocacy helps ensure employees are understanding the care they receive and have greater visibility into actual costs. While results will vary by platform and organization, vendors are confident in their results; they report significantly lower healthcare trend for clients, compared to previous years when there was no advocacy program in place. With an ever-changing landscape, it is possible that health advocacy programs can bridge the gap between consumers and care, but only time will tell if they can make a long-term impact on the market.

[i] https://www.bendhsa.com/newsroom/more-than-half-of-americans-confused-by-health-insurance-including-hsas