March 2021 – The services may be virtual, but the advantages of virtual healthcare as part of the benefits plan are very real.
“As soon as we implemented, people were very excited—especially because we were just starting to go into a lockdown. The ability to access this right away was really appreciated,” says Cristina Herman, director of human resources at McKercher LLP, one of Saskatchewan’s largest and most established law firms with offices in Saskatoon and Regina.
It was November 2019 when she and Andrea Hansen, her benefits advisor at Sutton Benefits & Pension, began discussing the potential of adding virtual healthcare services. After reviewing prospective providers, they selected EQ Care and implementation was scheduled for April 2020, along with the launch of an employee family assistance program (EFAP) with provider Homewood Health. When the seriousness of COVID-19 became apparent, the pace picked up and virtual care became available earlier, by mid-March.
The response from the 160 lawyers and staff members and their 40 dependents was immediate. During the first few weeks, 48% of plan members (including dependents) registered and after six months, 70% were on board. By August 2020, at least 50 physician consultations were occurring monthly. Most interactions (84%) occurred during the week, and 41% occurred between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“I absolutely loved the convenience of this process,” one employee wrote to Herman in an email. “You’ve got two big thumbs up and five-star feedback from me!”
Another employee, who used the service when her son was having difficulty breathing, wrote: “It took less than half an hour to speak with a doctor and get the prescriptions sent off to the pharmacy. Thanks for having this option available to us!”
When Herman was hired early in 2019, she brought a background in health and wellness programming, including certification as a trainer for mental health programs in the workplace. The company’s group benefits plan was a traditional plan and virtually unchanged since implementation, although the firm had steadily expanded. The busy law firm’s executive committee took pride in their efforts to create a family-friendly culture and wanted to update their benefits plan and introduce programs to reflect that.
Sutton Benefits & Pension became McKercher’s benefits advisor in October 2019. Herman and Hansen put together an action plan that would kick off with virtual healthcare and an EFAP. As a member firm of the Benefits Alliance (BA) Group, Hansen was able to quickly engage EQ Care, one of BA’s preferred providers and a leading provider of virtual healthcare services in Canada.
“These were low-cost, huge value-added items that are relatively easy to put in place,” says Hansen.
“They were quick wins for us,” agrees Herman. “They support our culture and now we are in a good position to move forward with changes to the benefits plan.”
Too often, adds Hansen, plan sponsors take the opposite approach. “Employers tend to start with changes to the core benefits, which can be more difficult in part because the changes may benefit some but not others. Or you get too focused on containing costs and lose sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak.”
What advice would Herman give to other human resources managers interested in adding virtual healthcare to their benefits program? First, work with your benefits advisor to get the facts on implementation and cost-effectiveness. When outlining the benefits to senior leadership, note that virtual care not only reduces lost work time, but also increases the likelihood that health issues are addressed sooner because busy staff are less likely to put off or skip appointments. And in a world with COVID-19, emphasize that the facilitation of virtual healthcare is especially valued as a way to quickly get first access to care from the safety of home.
“It’s hard to put into words, but the programs we have put into place have helped emphasize and strengthen the importance of family within our firm. The feedback has been amazing,” says Herman.
First published in the March 2021 edition of The Benefits Alliance Take 5 for Health Benefits newsletter.