Dentists, opticians, physiotherapists – and most private hospitals – are, to all intents and purposes, closed. So are cash plans still worth having? Emily Perryman reports.
With dentists and opticians shutting their doors to all but the most urgent of cases, the cash plan industry faces the unenviable task of persuading clients that their policies still offer value.
Meeting the cost of dental and optical treatment has traditionally been the biggest selling point of cash plans, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic this type of cover has become pretty much redundant.
Other important cash plan benefits may also appear irrelevant to cash-strapped clients. Non-essential physiotherapy is no longer allowed to take place, and cover for private medical insurance (PMI) excesses is of no use while private hospitals are shut to routine operations and procedures.
It isn’t yet known how the crisis will affect future sales, however providers say they are still managing to attract new business by focusing on the other, less well-known benefits that cash plans offer.
The closure of dentists, opticians and physiotherapists is a major obstacle for the cash plan industry, but providers are keen to point out that it is only a temporary measure and that some types of services are still being offered.
“Although we appreciate that dentists and opticians are not currently open for regular, everyday treatments and service, dentists are still providing emergency treatments where required,” says Paul Gambon, sales and marketing director at Medicash. “Users can also continue to claim for their monthly dental capitation scheme costs, as well as contact lens schemes and new glasses based on their existing prescription bought online.
“We’ve also seen a number of physiotherapists move to offering remote consultations and therapy sessions, where a trained physiotherapist guides you through a series of exercises, movements and massages to relieve any pain that you are currently suffering. Medicash will process and pay these in our normal way.”
When it comes to cover for PMI excesses, cash plan providers argue that this isn’t relevant for the majority of their customer base because policies don’t cover PMI excesses as standard. Instead, it is an additional benefit which some employers might have chosen to add to their cash plan offering. “Claiming back the costs of a PMI excess is not a key reason our customers purchase a cash plan,” states Bupa.
Despite the unavailability of private treatment, Medicash is encouraging employers to keep cover in place. Gambon points out that the risk for the benefit has been calculated over 12 months and the cost spread over that year.
“As most private hospitals are temporarily shut these individuals will not currently be able to access these services and so no voluntary excess will be due, but that does not mean that these individuals will not be accessing these services later in their benefit year as the current lockdown measures start to be relaxed and private hospitals are able to open again with confidence that this will not negatively impact the NHS. Any reduction in claims against the PMI benefit will be taken into account during their next premium review,” he adds.
Shift in benefit focus
In the meantime, providers are trying to focus on the other benefits cash plans offer – many of which are arguably even more useful at the moment.
“There are many other benefits of our health cash plan that are of particular importance during this challenging time, including our Thrive mental health app, GP Anytime and employee assistance (EAP) services,” says Courtney Marsh, chief executive of Health Shield. “We are actively promoting these services to both clients and brokers through regular communications, and brokers who have sold a health cash plan purely on PMI excess should in turn be highlighting these services to their clients.”
There has already been a noticeable increase in the uptake of Health Shield’s EAP. Over the past two months, there has been a 79% rise in telephone counselling sessions and a 146% increase in online counselling sessions when compared to the previous 11 months. Likewise, Health Shield’s virtual GP service witnessed a 76% increase in telephone consultations, a 380% increase in e-consultations and a 133% rise in prescriptions in March compared to the previous two months.
Many providers believe there is likely to be a temporary shift in the popularity of some benefits.
“Complementary therapy treatments, for example, have seen increasingly high usage over a number of years and musculoskeletal problems are a common cause of absence. Clearly this benefit will experience a reduction in usage whilst accessibility is reduced,” says Gambon. “The likelihood is, however, that there will be a marked increase in usage once the lockdown is lifted and people who have been struggling can access this benefit again. Staff who have been working from home won’t all have the perfect office set up, which will generate an increase in musculoskeletal problems.”
Gambon argues that cash plan benefits are also important for furloughed employees. They are still entitled to access benefits, however it is up to individual organisations whether they continue to offer them.
“We would encourage any organisation that has a cash plan in place with access to benefits such as a virtual GP or mental health support, either through helplines or a full EAP service, to keep this in place for their furloughed employees,” says Gambon. “This will not only help these employees to keep themselves in the best physical or mental state for when they hopefully can return to their previous role, but it will also show these employees how important they are to the organisation and that hopefully this is just a temporary measure.”
Support for clients
Although cash plans already offer a range of benefits that are useful during lockdown, providers aren’t resting on their laurels. Most are offering additional support to help members through the crisis.
Benenden and Westfield Health, for instance, have extended the amount of time someone can submit a receipt after treatment from 13 to 26 weeks.
BHSF has launched a dedicated coronavirus advice line offering instant access to occupational health advisers. It is also providing telephone-based return-to-work assessments for employees who are self-isolating, as well as video workplace assessments.
Simplyhealth has added specialist advice on its website to help corporate clients to manage their businesses. Topics range from how to look after employees, how to spot scams, expert Q&As, government links and advice from its partners. It has also developed a range of coronavirus-specific resources for clients to share with their employees, such as how to stay healthy at home and how to manage change and anxiety.
Health Shield, meanwhile, has opened its specialist consultation service to cover video calls, removed the pandemic exclusion to support the hospitalisation of members due to COVID-19, and is offering a virtual physio triage service within many of its plans. Bupa has also waived the pandemic exclusion for any hospital inpatient stays and day-case admissions, and will make a payment outside of policy for funeral grant benefit claims relating to COVID-19 starting from 12 March.
Medicash has been extending the content available through the wellbeing section of the Medicash app. Previously, this included content such as breathing exercises, guided meditations and advice on improving mental wellbeing.
“From May, users will be able to access over 70 different high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts for all levels of ability from the budding beginner to the seasoned professional who is missing their local gym,” says Gambon. “With the increase in home working, and inevitably a more sedentary lifestyle, there’s never been a more important time to look after employee health and help improve their fitness levels.”
Advice lines, guides and virtual assessments are all well and good, but for clients suffering financial hardship it’s unlikely these services will persuade them not to cancel their policies. Some cash plan providers say they will offer financial assistance, although in most cases it is unclear what this will actually entail.
Simplyhealth says that for any customers worried about the ongoing cost of cover, it can offer payment holidays while still allowing employees to access benefits, according to circumstances. Health Shield recently announced that it will work with corporate clients and individual members on a case-by-case basis to assess what support may be required if they are facing temporary financial difficulties.
“Financial assistance will depend on the company’s and individual’s needs and may include immediate premium holidays (although this would result in a loss of access to MyWellness services), as well as potential rebates, premium reductions and benefit increases,” explains Marsh.
For corporate clients, Medicash is offering payment holidays and says that any reduction in claims made by a group’s employees in the current benefit year will be factored in at renewal.
“The nature of health cash plans, together with the wide variation in cover, plan usage and differing ‘benefit years’, makes it difficult for Medicash to make a one-size-fits-all statement or policy regarding premiums and premium reductions,” says Gambon. “What we can definitively say, however, is that Medicash will not make any unreasonable financial profits arising from COVID-19.”
Other providers are also keen to stress that they won’t unintentionally profit from the pandemic. Health Shield says it will pass any unintended profits back to its clients and members – this could be via a rebate, future premium decreases or benefit and service enhancements.
“Cash plan benefits can be claimed throughout the benefit year and, because of the uncertainty surrounding how much members will catch up with claiming benefits once lockdown restrictions reduce, our current stance is to wait until a scheme’s renewal before analysing any change to premiums or benefits,” says Marsh. “However, we are constantly monitoring the situation.”
Cash plans are still available to new customers and, despite many benefits not being of use right now, providers claim they are seeing strong levels of interest. Simplyhealth says many businesses have continued to operate as normally as possible and are looking for healthcare solutions to support their employees. It is also continuing to receive new business from individual consumers.
Health Shield, meanwhile, claims that the crisis has sparked a particular interest in the digital solutions it provides, and it has seen increased focus from employers on the health and wellbeing of their employees.
Medicash and Bupa both admit it is too early to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on future sales. However, Medicash’s Gambon says it is encouraging to see that businesses still recognise the importance of showing their employees that they are cared about by investing in their wellbeing.
“Health cash plans and EAPs are simple and low-cost ways of looking after staff,” he says. “Even if a company has furloughed staff, this could be an even more important time to show staff you care and give them reassurance and support during a very difficult and uncertain period.”