Along with traditional health insurance offerings, your members likely also have access to specialty benefits such as vision and dental care. These supplemental benefits give members the flexibility to choose the right coverage, at the right amount, for their needs. While some members may decline to enroll in these benefits, viewing them as a needless cost, as a union leader it's important for you to help members understand how these benefits can be a cost-effective way to better manage overall health and avoid unnecessary out-of-pocket expenditures.
Evaluating Specialty Benefit Availability
As employers seek new ways of keeping employees healthier and more productive, specialty benefits — including health-centric benefits like dental, vision, accident and critical illness insurance — have become increasingly pervasive. According to an Anthem survey, dental and vision are the most sought-after specialty benefits among employees.
Despite their popularity and ability to keep employees healthier, however, the availability of these benefits is on the decline. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reported in a 2018 benefits survey that 68% of employees had access to dental insurance at work, a decline from 74% in 2017. Similarly, 69% of employers offered vision insurance in 2017, but only 64% did in 2018.
According to the survey, the most common reasons for purchasing specialty benefits through an employer include protection against an unexpected expense, help with out-of-pocket medical costs, simple payroll deductions and a lower cost than purchasing similar insurance on the open market. When those benefits are offered, the enrollment rate is high: 79% of employees get dental, while 73% opt for vision.
The Importance of Ensuring Access to Specialty Benefits
Even if your members don't currently have a need for the specialty benefit coverage their employer offers, it's critical that the option remains available. Integrating these benefits with medical insurance plays a strong role in keeping members healthier. Additionally, when the benefits come through a single insurance carrier, claims history provides a more holistic picture for providers on the type of care members have received in the past and what benefits they may require to manage their health going forward.
A growing body of evidence suggests that seeking ancillary preventive care, such as dental and vision, helps to identify chronic conditions early, thus allowing for better care management and lower medical costs overall. Early diabetes detection can save hundreds of dollars each year. A regular visit to an ophthalmologist can detect conditions like diabetes, cancer, arthritis, high cholesterol and the increased likelihood of a stroke.
Dentists can also identify a number of aliments; a vast majority of systemic diseases have an oral-related symptom. The National Association of Dental Plans reports that those without dental benefits are 67% more likely to have heart disease, 50% more likely to have osteoporosis and 29% more likely to have diabetes.
Encouraging Specialty Benefit Use
It's easy for members to dismiss these benefits as an extra monthly expense. However, when an issue manifests itself, the costs of seeking care without coverage can add up to an amount far higher than the price of covered treatment. To encourage your members to use the benefits, develop an education campaign to inform members of what they have access to, why access to these types of care matters and the potential savings involved. Remind members that these benefits aren't just for unexpected health issues — they also cover preventive care that can detect and help manage issues as early as possible.
Your communication efforts should rely on multiple methods to reach members. Vary your messaging among your website, emails, text messages and social media. While you should time the communications to correspond with the benefits enrollment period, distributing periodic reminders about available benefits and services will spread the message wider and ensure higher utilization of care after enrollment.
Specialty benefits can facilitate savings for members and help better protect overall health. By encouraging their use, the union gives members a financial safety net when unexpected medical issues arise and supports their health, their work and their overall well-being.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.