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May 26, 2020

How to Build A Mental Health Wellness Strategy in the Wake of Coronavirus

Artemis Health

Every state in the U.S. has now taken steps to reopen businesses that were shut down due to the spread of coronavirus. As people cautiously start to return to work and other daily activities, benefits advisors and employers are looking at another looming health crisis: mental well-being. 

Many experts are seeing signs of a growing mental health crisis in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed Americans and found that many are reporting signs of depression. 

“More than half of Americans -- 56% -- reported that worry or stress related to the outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect.” 

These aren’t just classic symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, trouble focusing, or a loss of interest in day-to-day activities. The poll showed that people are experiencing trouble eating and sleeping, higher consumption of alcohol, frequent headaches or stomachaches, shorter tempers, and others. And those who had lost income due to COVID-19 were more likely to report these behavioral health issues. 

While Americans are struggling to stay positive, benefits professionals are scrambling to get employees the help they need from home. Many have taken steps to relaunch and educate employees about Employee Assistance Programs. Others have rolled out telemedicine counseling services, self-guided programs with video modules, and other behavioral health wellness tools. Some employers are looking at renewals or additions for next year and have begun evaluating mental health wellness vendors. 

Artemis Health helps many customers evaluate, measure, and track the success of behavioral health wellness programs and other programs for self-insured employers and benefits advisors. We work with self-insured employers, benefits consultants, and brokers who have successfully justified new behavioral health wellness programs or strategies, and we want to share some tips for how to best support employees during this time. 

Tip 1: Use data to justify your behavioral health strategy. 

We know from many clients that if they aren’t coming to the table with reliable data to back up their benefits strategy, they’re not able to accomplish the things they want. A compelling story told with data will help make the case for better mental health care for employees.

Here’s a real-world example from a client who was interested in their population’s mental and behavioral health. We began the analysis by finding members with diagnoses for depression or anxiety and prescriptions for these conditions. We used further metrics and data points to determine how these conditions are affecting the members’ work, their other health concerns, or the overall organization.

The Artemis Platform allows you to add overlapping metrics to an analysis so you can get a holistic view and compare the same data across different feeds. In this case, we selected: 

  • Absentee hours
  • Per member per year (PMPY) costs for med and Rx
  • Short-term disability claims
  • Wellness program participation
  • Office location
  • ER visits
  • Comorbid musculoskeletal diagnoses
  • And more

Our analysis with this customer resulted in clear, actionable data: 

From the visualization above, it was clear to the benefits leader and their C-suite that depression and anxiety affect an employee’s overall health and well-being. They’re more likely to miss work, incur higher costs, spend more time on short-term disability, visit the ER more often, and more likely to have a comorbid musculoskeletal diagnosis. The client was able to justify adding a mental health wellness program thanks to this data. 

Artemis Health’s platform helps both benefits teams and consultants find the right data to help them provide better care for members. We recommend making a healthcare data analytics solution a key part of your mental health strategy, and it can even help you calculate the risks and costs associated with COVID-19

Tip 2: Relaunch your EAP. 

If you have an EAP, it’s likely underutilized. What percentage of your employees would you estimate need EAP services at some time in their tenure? 10 percent? 15? How has that number changed due to the stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19? Do you have the data you need to see whether employees are using this key resource as they cope with the coronavirus pandemic? 

Unfortunately, studies have shown EAP utilization hovers around 3%! These benefits have expanded, improved, and transformed to keep up with changes in the workforce, but many employees aren’t aware or engaging with them. Some think they’re only aimed at suicide prevention or only focused on substance abuse. 

Most employees only hear about EAP benefits once a year during Open Enrollment. Even then, it might be on the second-to-last page of the open enrollment booklet. Benefits leaders and advisors should consider stepping up efforts to publicize EAPs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is a great time to remind employees about their EAP benefits, encourage them to reach out if they need help, and send out additional materials about your behavioral health coverage and programs.  

Tip 3: Consider your prescription spending. 

Many benefits leaders don’t think about behavioral health when they think about cost containment measures, but it can be a big factor in prescription spending. In his book “Brain Maker,” Dr. David Perlmutter writes, “Last year, 30 million Americans were prescribed $12 billion worth of antidepressants.” The percentage of Americans taking these drugs continues to rise at incredible rates, and while some are inexpensive generics, pharmaceutical companies continue to develop and advertise patented versions that patients ask for by name. 

By some estimates, as many as 1 in 4 women in their 40s and 50s take an antidepressant, and 1 in 10 people are on medication for mood disorders. These are big contributors to any employer’s overall Rx spend, and they’re likely to rise in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are struggling with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Prescriptions are often the first course of treatment, so employers looking for ways to battle costs due to coronavirus should also be looking at behavioral health conditions. 

Many psychologists recommend therapy along with medication as a more effective way to treat mental illnesses. Access to this type of care could not only improve patient outcomes, but also save on prescription spending in the long run. Make sure employees are aware of all their options for talk therapy, telemedicine visits, and other programs to help them during this time.

Tip 4: Use data to look more closely at disability spending.

For most self-insured employers, disability claims are more expensive than comprehensive mental health benefits. Did you know that the average length of a long-term disability claim is 34.6 months? This puts a tremendous strain on resources for employees and employers alike. Disability claims are often open-ended, and employers can’t predict costs for these benefits effectively.

Mental health is one big contributor to disability claims. Artemis Health’s analysis for one employer found that employees with depression racked up 9.7 times more disability work days absent than those without this diagnosis. Anxiety sufferers had 12.3 times more disability work days absent than those without anxiety. 

Employers and advisors can help employees find resources and ensure they stay in their role and maintain their financial health during treatment while limiting the cost and risk of prolonged absences. We recommend using a healthcare data analytics partner to look closely at behavioral health condition prevalence, compare it to disability spending, and plan to help employees avoid these claims and get the help they need proactively. 

Many benefits leaders are thinking hard about the effects of COVID-19 on their benefits spending, and we believe great data analytics tools can help them understand risks, predict costs, and take action that will help their organizations and their employees cope with COVID-19. If you’d like to access additional resources about the coronavirus, please visit our Resource Center.

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