Three years ago this month, the world was grappling with the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even then, with very little information available, people were beginning to turn their attention to the anticipated long-term ramifications of the public health crisis. With everyone experiencing this once-in-a-century moment simultaneously, no one had a response for how long the upcoming pandemic echo would last. And, unfortunately, three years later, we aren’t any closer to answering that question.
In late January, the World Health Organization said the pandemic remains a global health emergency, but its director-general also noted he’s hopeful the world will transition out of the emergency phase this year. Moving from a pandemic to an endemic phase may help to alleviate the urgency of the crisis, but it isn’t likely to impact the reverberations that are affecting every aspect of Canadians’ health and well-being.
First and foremost, the pandemic effect on people’s mental health is vast and evolving. From a broad perspective, Benefits Canada explored what’s next for mental-health support in our January/February Mental Health Issue.
More specifically, the benefits industry has seen an alarming rise in claims for mental-health drugs since the onset of the pandemic. The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association’s annual fact book found health insurers processed nearly $600 million in claims related to mental health in 2021, up 45 per cent since 2020 and 75 per cent since 2019. And a data analysis published by Sun Life Financial Inc. in January 2023 found mental-health drug claims skyrocketed among young Canadians between 2019 and 2021 — up 24 per cent for people aged 30 and under.
This month’s Benefits Feature — the 2023 Drug Plan Trends Report — takes this data to the employer level. For example, Scotiabank saw a notable rise in mental-health drug claims in 2022 alongside a higher usage of mental-health practitioners. As a result, the bank raised its annual mental-health coverage limit — from $3,000 to $10,000 — for all eligible employees and their dependants, as well as expanding the types of mental-health practitioners covered under the plan.
Another pandemic echo explored in the Benefits Feature is delayed diagnoses. Since many people put medical appointments on hold over the past couple of years, these interruptions are now leading to an increase in claims for medications used to treat chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, according to Medavie Blue Cross’ Marie-Hélène Dugal.
“That might also mean plan members will be treated at a later stage than if their regular checkups had been in place. . . . These diseases aren’t always symptomatic and are often detected during annual checkups.”
In addition, the benefits industry is increasingly concerned about the pandemic’s long-term impact on the cost of benefits plans. Indeed, the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey found 78 per cent of plan sponsors said they’re concerned about its impact, up from 71 per cent in 2021. Similarly, 81 per cent of plan sponsors agreed the pandemic will impact the costs of benefits over the next five years, up from 77 per cent in 2021.
Alongside rising inflation, TC Health Consulting’s Tim Clarke says the bigger pressure comes from a plan sponsor’s willingness to absorb the increasing costs, rather than the inflation rate itself. “A lot of businesses are looking to reassess how they’re spending money. However, coming out of a pandemic, health care will likely remain a high priority.”
And for organizations with employees still working remotely or in a hybrid environment, it’s clear that musculoskeletal issues are climbing up the list of pandemic repercussions.
From a personal perspective, as I spend my remote workdays moving my laptop from the dining room table to the couch to the kitchen counter, my chronic back pain — the result of a slipped disc 10 years ago — has never been worse. For a wider view, a 2020 survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found 50 per cent of respondents said their neck pain has gotten worse since they started working from home.
In the Benefits Update, the Canadian Chiropractic Association’s Dr. Ayla Azad says the complexity of the work-from-home environment is a recipe for disaster. “We’re seeing an increase in neck and back pain, repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel — all sorts of problems related to working from home.”
Read: Benefits Update
While I could continue to add to the list of pandemic ramifications on Canadians’ health and well-being, these examples paint an unsurprising picture, comprised of all the different topics that were already front of mind for employers and the rest of the industry back in 2020.
But here we are three years later without an end in sight. Will the pandemic echo carry on for years to come? Or will the industry be able to stem its spread with innovative programs and solutions for employers to support their workforces?
Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.