Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of Canadian benefits plan members say they appreciate their health benefits more today than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

It found while this result is generally consistent across all cross tabulations, the biggest variation occurred regionally, with a high of 85 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

This ‘pandemic effect’ similarly appears to be in evidence when plan members were asked to describe the quality of their health benefits plan: 77 per cent said it was excellent or good in both 2023 and 2022, up from 68 per cent in both 2021 and 2020. In 2022 and 2023, the gains came from fewer plan members describing the plan as adequate. Only four per cent described their plan as poor, consistent with previous years.

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Plan members who understand their plan extremely or very well (83 per cent) were much more likely to describe the plan as excellent or good than those who don’t understand their plan (57 per cent). Similarly, plan members who described their mental health as excellent or very good (85 per cent) had a positive perception of their benefits plan, compared to members who described their mental health as poor (66 per cent).

However, plan sponsors appear to be less positive: 72 per cent described their benefits plan as excellent or good, down from 80 per cent in 2022 and in 2020. Plan sponsors with a plan that includes virtual health care (81 per cent) were more likely to describe their plan as excellent or good, as were those that believe they have a wellness culture (76 per cent versus 50 per cent without a wellness culture).

“Many plan sponsors really stepped up during COVID, introducing virtual care and more benefits for mental-health and preventative care,” said Dustin Hunt, regional vice-president of sales for group benefits and retirement solutions at iA Financial Group and a member of the survey’s advisory board, in the report. “Yet many are now struggling with growing financial pressures. The next few years will focus on finding the right balance between maintaining a value proposition for employees and financial sustainability.”

Read: Just 61% of U.S. workers satisfied with their employer-sponsored benefits: survey

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of plan members said their plan meets their personal needs extremely or very well, similar to last year (61 per cent) and within a few points, up or down, since 2018 (62 per cent). Again, level of understanding affects results: roughly three-quarters (74 per cent) of members who understand their plan extremely or very well said it meets their needs extremely or very well, compared to 47 per cent among those who somewhat understand and 38 per cent among those who don’t understand their plan.

When plan members were asked to choose between extra annual cash or their health benefits plan, $5,000 appears to be the tipping point: 52 per cent opted for the plan and 48 per cent chose the $5,000. In 2003, when the question was first asked, 65 per cent chose the plan and 33 per cent chose the cash. The survey noted this breakdown was generally consistent until 2020.

Plan members aged 55 and older were more likely to opt for the plan (65 per cent versus 42 per cent for members aged 18 to 34), as were heavy users of the drug plan (61 per cent versus 48 per cent for light or non-users). At the higher amounts of $10,000 and $15,000, plan members overall were more likely to opt for the extra cash (57 per cent and 64 per cent, respectively), although older members (47 per cent and 55 per cent) and heavy users of the drug plan (49 per cent and 54 per cent) were less likely to do so.

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“It’s great to see plan members appreciate their benefits more, but it’s also interesting that more would give it all up for cash,” said Meghan Vallis, group sales vice-president for Western Canada at the Equitable Life Insurance Co. of Canada and an advisory board member, in the report. “This likely reflects that people don’t think about the value of their benefits plan as insurance or the premium cost. Communication is so important. Employers have an opportunity to not only communicate the benefits available, but also the financial value of the plan.”

The vast majority (85 per cent) of plan sponsors reported having at least one major concern about their health benefits plan, including the impact of inflation (36 per cent), competitiveness of the plan (33 per cent), sustainability of the dental plan (31 per cent), sustainability of the drug plan (26 per cent) and overall sustainability of the plan (25 per cent).

In separate questions focused on disability benefits, 44 per cent of plan sponsors with a short-term disability plan were concerned about its utilization level, down from 56 per cent in 2022. The same percentage (44 per cent) was concerned about their long-term disability plan, down from 51 per cent in 2022.

Read: Survey finds majority of plan sponsors concerned over pandemic’s long-term impact to benefits costs