Employers improve cancer benefits, but offerings go underutilized

While cancer remains one of the most dreaded diseased in the workforce and in life, many of the benefits that companies offer are not being utilized to their fullest extent, according to a new guide published by Northeast Business Group on Health released this week.

The guide, “Improving the Cancer Patient Experience: Putting Employees at the Center of Your Cancer Benefits Strategy,” aims to provide human resources and benefits leaders with details on how to best help employees dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

“Benefits leaders need to be thinking about not just that employees get the right clinical care at the right time, but be prepared to address other issues that surround this very complex illness,” says Candice Sherman, chief executive officer of NEBGH.

Employers have already made strides to add new services to their standard cancer benefit offerings, but patients are often unaware these benefits exist, says Sherman. In some cases, a health plan may only learn about the employee’s condition months after the diagnosis when the patient’s insurance claims are being processed. In other cases, an employer may have too many vendors involved in the cancer care discussion, which can lead to frustration and confusion for the patient or caregiver.

Employers can do a better job helping patients to utilize cancer benefits by developing a more streamlined approach to dealing with cancer, says NEGBH. The new guide provides suggestions for employers on how to improve the patient experience.

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Cancer is a complex disease that requires input from medical experts, case managers, disability managers, pharmacy benefit managers and others, and if benefits leaders do not have streamlined communication across all vendors, this can frustrate the patient, and caregiver, Sherman says.

“The danger is sometimes you end up with an array of vendors who are not necessarily in communication, or collaboration with one another,” she says. “It could mean things like an employee or family member is getting repeated calls asking the same questions from a variety of different people.”

Sherman suggests that benefits leaders make employees aware of the cancer benefits the company offers on a recurring basis. Regardless of the size of the employer or the type of benefits offered, communication is key. Sending out information once a year just isn’t going to cut it, she says.

“Because when you’re facing a diagnosis, the last thing you want to do is start sorting through all of your paper work,” she says.

The guide details multiple strategies for benefits leaders assisting an employee that just received a cancer diagnosis. It suggests a “cancer care huddle” where a benefits leader coordinates with multiple stakeholders to ensure the employee receives the best care.

The guide emphasizes a step-by-step plan for employers after a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, like obtaining a second medical opinion to ensure correct diagnosis and confirming the patient is comfortable with their treatment plan. The better coordinated the services, the guide notes, the more likely they are to be used effectively.

Sherman adds that many employers make outside services, like local and national cancer resources, available to patients when necessary. For example if any employee is concerned about the financial burden of cancer care and expensive treatments that may not be covered by their health plan, a benefits leader can refer them to outside service that may be able to assist them.

“Even [smaller] employers that may not have these types of support services or vendors available, there’s always something we can do to help smooth the path for employees or family members with a cancer diagnosis,” Sherman says.

Another key element of cancer care is making sure that employees have access to mental healthcare. A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, and employers should not neglect the emotional toll it can place on an employee and their family, Sherman says. Social and emotional support should be one of the first considerations a benefits leader takes upon learning about an employee’s cancer diagnosis.

“There’s a heavy duty fear component that doesn’t necessarily accompany other diseases and conditions,” she says.

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