The Loop

The Underappreciated Cancer Benefit

Filed under: Benefits

According to the American Cancer Society, there were about 15.5 million cancer survivors in the US in 2016, and by 2026 that number is expected to increase to 20.3 million. Thanks to more people getting regular preventive healthcare and the prevalence of early detection, today there are more people living with cancer than dying from it.

Furthermore, many workers who are diagnosed with cancer are able to receive treatment and return to work within three months. One reason cancer has become less of a death sentence is because more employers have stepped up with cancer support programs and benefits as part of their compensation package.

Some offer cancer insurance as a voluntary benefit, which provides additional coverage to complement a worker's health insurance policy. Cancer insurance commonly pays out a lump sum benefit that beneficiaries can use in any manner to help ease their financial burden, from paying health insurance co-pays and deductibles, to travel and lodging for out-of-town treatments, to everyday expenses such as mortgage, utilities, groceries or childcare. In 2015, 45 percent of employers with 500 or more workers offered cancer insurance as a voluntary benefit, an increase of 34 percent from 2009.

Growing Issue
Because more people are working beyond traditional retirement age, it is reasonable to expect older workers will experience increased health problems, such as cancer. This in turn may lead to higher expenses in terms of health and disability benefits, lower productivity and the loss of in- depth expertise due to extended absences.

Given the potential for larger numbers of workers being diagnosed with cancer, it's important for employers to get organized and proactive in how they design, communicate and present cancer benefits to their workforce. The reality is that while many employers offer some amalgamation of supportive programs that could benefit a worker diagnosed with cancer, more often than not workers are unaware of these benefits and do not reach out for support from their employer. In many cases, a healthcare plan may not learn that a member has been diagnosed with cancer until claims are filed, and workers are often reluctant to share the news with supervisors and co-workers. This can leave them suffering in silence, worried and confused.

It is in an employer's best interest to reach out and support cancer victims with whatever programs are offered through the organization. The following are some ideas on how these benefits can best be conveyed.

Build a Culture of Health and Support
One thing that can help pave the way to better communication of benefits is to build a culture of health and support within your organization. Particularly where cancer is concerned, consider hosting an annual Cancer Screen Week highlighting the healthcare benefits, tests and screens covered by the company health plan, and as well as other educational information.

Communication Strategy
In addition to an annual awareness focus week, be sure to communicate company-sponsored cancer benefits on a recurring basis. This is especially important because, other than understanding deductible, co-pay and coinsurance requirements of their health plan, workers diagnosed with cancer are unlikely to think much beyond that. They are not likely to go roaming through their original onboarding or annual enrollment paperwork to see if other support benefits are offered. It's up to you to keep this information top-of-mind year round through various means such as breakroom posters and bulletin board notices. Make it easy for workers to recall where they've seen information so they can discretely inquire further.

Also make it evident that the first step any worker who is diagnosed with cancer should do is contact your human resource department (or whomever is assigned to handle HR matters at your organization). This person should be fully versed on the breath and depth of cancer benefits and armed with program materials to help seamlessly guide the worker through the process. This includes information on:

  •  Medical and prescription drug coverages, including deductibles, co-pays, precertification requirements, network healthcare providers, plan and lifetime maximums
  •  Leave policies
  •  Flexible scheduling and remote work options, if available
  •  Employee assistance program (EAP) resources for worker and/or family members
  •  Community resources and support groups

Also be aware that the most overlooked support component is neglecting to ask a diagnosed cancer patient what kind of support she needs and prefers. This can range from additional childcare resources, to transportation services, to at-work accommodations or schedule changes that will enable them to attend doctor's appointments and provide recovery time. And remember that this should not be a one-time assessment; continue to check in so the worker feels comfortable making additional requests as his needs change throughout the course of treatment and recovery.

Written Guidance
In addition to a personal consultation, HR should have a written cancer guide that describes all of the organization's cancer benefits and how to access them. The purpose of this document is to provide a one-stop resource for cancer victims that streamlines all other likely sources, such as general health plan and EAP information. This guide would be specific for cancer, so that the worker does not have to plough through dozens of brochures and fact sheets to glean cancer benefit information. This is a critical resource to improve utilization of cancer benefits provided by the organization, and better equip the worker to deal with his situation.

Support Team
In addition to the HR resource, the Northeast Business Group on Health recommends that employers assemble a "cancer care huddle", which is a collection of stakeholders responsible for coordinating services to ensure the worker is aware of benefits, knows how to access them, and receives the best care appropriate for his situation. This support team not only includes plan coordinators for medical benefits, wellness coaches, and disability managers, but also representatives for financial counseling, mental health, social, and emotional support programs for both the worker and his family. The purpose of the "huddle" is to address the worker's needs through a holistic and collaborative approach with a high level of communication and coordination so that no details slip through the cracks and efforts are not duplicated.

Team Coordinator
The cancer care huddle should be assigned a team leader who acts as navigator or case manager so that the patient can have one point of contact. This team coordinator may be responsible for a myriad of duties, such as:

  • Connecting workers with healthcare providers
  • Arranging for second opinions
  • Researching evidence-based information on the type of cancer the worker has and options for treatment
  • Helping the worker file health insurance claims, review medical bills and complete medical paperwork
  • Coordinating communication and medical records among members of the treatment team
  • Attending appointments with the worker, if requested
  • Getting answers to patient questions about treatments and how to manage side effects

The better company benefits are coordinated, the more likely they will be used effectively.

Return to Work Plan
It is important to recognize that cancer affects people differently, so how quickly and seamlessly they can return to work will vary considerably. The key component is to make sure the worker understands that you are willing to make accommodations to help his return be comfortable; it should not be business as usual. Again, the HR and/or cancer team coordinator should remain in constant contact throughout the treatment process to understand what the worker has gone through, what accommodations will be most appropriate to resume work, and so that the worker is comfortable making specific requests.

Some potential accommodations may include:

  • Additional time off or flexible scheduling to allow for follow-up doctor appointments and recovery periods
  • A temporary change in job responsibilities to be more accommodative
  • The ability to work from home or remotely, as appropriate
  • Physical workplace accommodations, such as ergonomic furniture and accessories

Be aware that cancer patients may continue to feel the effects of their illness even after treatment has ended, such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, poor circulation, temperature sensitivity, numbness caused by nerve damage or respiratory problems. Continue to stay in contact with the worker and offer to make job and schedule modifications as necessary so the worker does not suffer in silence. It is important that the cancer survivor feel supported throughout the process.

Employer Benefit
It may seem like a big responsibility to devote so many resources to a singular cancer victim, but much of the work is in organizing benefit options and devising a plan from the outset. Once a system is in place, it can be replicated and customized for each worker and soon the program will run like clockwork. This is very important because there is no sense in offering cancer benefits if they are not utilized during the worker's time of critical need.

Supporting cancer victims also substantially helps employers benefit in a number of ways. First of all, ensuring that a worker has the support he needs at work makes it less likely he will resign during his treatment period, which avoids the time and expense involved in hiring a new worker and getting him up to speed. The organization also retains a valuable source of knowledge and experience, particularly in the case of mature workers.

Furthermore, a formal cancer support program at work may reduce the time that a patient is out of work. Presently, cancer is the leading cause of long-term disability (LTD) and the sixth leading cause of short-term disability (STD). Employers may reduce the indirect costs of lost productivity, which collectively total around $7.5 billion a year due to cancer alone. And while cancer patients represent only one percent of the commercially- insured population, they account for approximately 10 percent of employers' medical claims each year.

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