A view of 2020: EBN’s top 10 opinion pieces

Between the stress of choosing mental health programs and preventing COVID from spreading in the workplace, HR professionals could use a second opinion — even if it’s from someone they’ve never met before.

In 2020, we found that to be particularly true as readers flocked to our Views section to find the most-read features atEmployee Benefit News. Benefit professionals and HR leaders every year offer their insight and expertise on issues employers face every day, but some pieces struck a special cord with readers in a year unlike any other we’ve ever faced.

Considering the whirlwind 2020 has been, it may come as no surprise that opinion articles about pandemic-related issues were the most popular.

To help employers make informed decisions about their plans for the new year, here’s a compilation of the top 10 most-read Views pieces on EBN in 2020:

If you would like to submit to our Views column, email EBNviews@arizent.com and read our guidelines for submissions here.

3 healthcare benefits trends to consider for 2021

COVID-19 has created an incredibly challenging and complex environment for businesses and American workers, with unemployment claims skyrocketing and 11% of CEOs saying they fear their companies won’t survive the pandemic, according to a YPO survey.

As with all disruption, however, we now have the opportunity to adjust our structures, mindsets and ways of working to emerge from the crisis stronger than ever before. At a time when it has never been more important for employers to keep a close eye on the health of their employees and support them in every way possible, there will be plenty of challenges regarding healthcare benefits in the year ahead, including a rise in COBRA eligibility. But there are a few positives for our industry to consider, too.

Read more: 3 healthcare benefits trends to consider for 2021

Smart CEOs must hear employee cry for mental health benefits

Even in normal times, employers struggle to manage the evolving mental health needs of employees. Skyrocketing healthcare costs, limited access to high quality mental health provider networks and insufficient support programs make this challenge all the more daunting.

Even before the pandemic, the American worker was living in a world of rising substance abuse rates, an always-on work culture that rewards those who never sleep, a tumultuous political climate and the pervasive worry that comes with wondering when the next recession might hit.

It’s clear why mental health issues were on the rise among American workers prior to COVID-19. Now, amid a worldwide pandemic, stress levels are through the roof, two recent surveys show. Before the pandemic, almost 60% of workers shared that stress had brought them to tears at work (a 23% increase over 2019) and 43% of employees said they have become physically ill over work-related stress, according to a survey from on-demand mental health provider Ginger.

Read more: Smart CEOs must hear employee cry for mental health benefits

5 myths about returning to work after a disability

Carl was 58 when he found out he needed a hip replacement, and the environmental services worker was told he’d be out of work for three months to recover.

But less than eight weeks after his surgery, Carl was back on the job. It wasn’t because he couldn’t pay his bills without a paycheck — his short-term disability insurance through his employer helped with that. Instead, it was for two reasons: One, he was eager to get back to his normal life, and two, his employer was willing to support a plan for a gradual transition back to his usual duties. With his doctor’s approval, he worked half-days for two weeks as he built back his endurance and work stamina, and soon was working full-time again.

The result: Carl’s transition back to work over a 14-day period got him back on the job 40 days earlier than expected, based on initial estimated date. The transition plan also allowed him to return to work without needing to tap into his long-term coverage. At the same time, his employer was saved the cost of hiring and training replacement staff or paying overtime to other workers.

Read more: 5 myths about returning to work after a disability

Addressing COVID-19 challenges in a small business

As coronavirus pervades every aspect of life right now, it is a business imperative to support employees during this time when there are many unknowns. As small business owners know all too well, the challenges facing their business are very similar to those experienced by large organizations. However, they have to manage them with limited resources. This is no different for responding to COVID-19.

As the founder and CEO of a workplace wellness company that also is a small business, it was particularly important to proactively address the public health crisis for my own employees, because our clients turn to us for guidance on maintaining healthy workplaces during trying times.

My business has implemented a series of strategies to maintain a healthy work environment and reassure our employer clients. We recommend other small businesses follow suit.

Read more: Addressing COVID-19 challenges in a small business

What benefit managers need to know about HRAs in 2020

Some of the biggest changes to healthcare design at this moment are encompassed by final rules recently published by the current administration around health reimbursement accounts.

There are three new forms of HRAs for employers to understand and evaluate: qualified small employer HRAs (QSEHRAs), individual coverage HRAs (ICHRAs) and excepted benefit HRAs (EBHRAs). Two of these — ICHRAs and EBHRAs — are newly available for employers to establish for plan years beginning on and after Jan. 1, 2020. Here are the basics of each type of plan.

Read more: What benefit managers need to know about HRAs in 2020

5 things employers need to know about the CARES Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed by President Trump on March 27 after passing both the House and Senate earlier in the week. This $2.2 trillion stimulus package is wide-reaching and intended to provide economic relief for the individuals and businesses hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting financial downturn.

Within the 800-page bill, there are several important provisions affecting employers, including requirements for coverage of COVID-19 testing and treatments. There are also provisions that extend beyond the coronavirus into other areas of employer benefit designs with potential impact to group health plans beyond the current public health emergency.

Read more: 5 things employers need to know about the CARES Act

New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs

As an employee benefits attorney and compliance consultant, last summer’s executive order on “improving price and quality transparency in American healthcare to put patients first” piqued my interest. In particular, I honed on in section 6(b), aimed at treating expenses related to direct primary care arrangements as eligible medical expenses.

As someone dealing with a complicated medical history, digging into the order and digesting the resultant proposed IRS rule was more than my job – it was and is part of my life.

Several years ago, I decided to give direct primary care a try. For about $100 a month, I gained direct access to and the undivided attention of a physician who knows me and my unique medical needs. I pay a flat, upfront fee and my doctor coordinates and manages my treatment, which isn’t always smooth sailing for someone dealing with a complex connective tissue disorder. My primary care physician serves as the coach and quarterback of my medical care, directing tests, meds, and visits to various specialists like rheumatologists or neurologists. If I have a common cold or infection, she’s readily available to prescribe treatment and set my mind at ease.

Read more: New direct primary care rules are a tough pill for HSAs

Understanding the coronavirus relief package and stimulus checks

What does the just-enacted largest relief package in history mean for your employees?

As the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic shutters business and slows economic activity, many Americans are counting on benefits from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. Among other assistance, this act includes a direct payment to most taxpayers and their families.

Here’s what you need to know about their stimulus checks — how much you'll receive in and how to make sure you get it.

Read more: Understanding the coronavirus relief package and stimulus checks

A second child care crisis is coming, employers will need to address it

Americans knew child care was important before the outbreak of COVID-19, but there's nothing like a sticky-fingered child tapping on your keyboard during a Zoom to prove just how important it is. This crisis has demonstrated how incompatible the American workday is with raising children.

Productivity is at a low for nearly all parents, and employers will be eager to resume engines in full-force once social distancing comes to an end. One thing to anticipate, however, is that employers' child care troubles are far from over. A second child care crisis is coming, and employers will need to address it.

Shelter at home mandates have made it difficult for many daycares to operate normally, and fewer spots in daycare means fewer parents can return to work.

Read more: A second child care crisis is coming, employers will need to address it

Understanding new paid leave rules in the Coronavirus Response Act

In an attempt to address aspects of the workplace upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. That act included major temporary changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and created a new paid leave entitlement. The Act itself raised many questions, some of which are being answered in an ongoing series of Department of Labor (DOL) guidance.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of the Act is what it does not cover. The Act does not provide any paid or protected leave time in the event of a company shut down for any COVID-19-related reason.

Under the Act, all employers with fewer than 500 employees are required to offer “emergency” FMLA leave to any employee with at least 30 days’ tenure, but only for instances in which that employee is unable to work or telework because his or her children’s school or place of childcare is closed due to COVID-19. This requirement is imposed even on employers who are not otherwise covered by the FMLA because they are too small.

Read more: Understanding new paid leave rules in the Coronavirus Response Act