As the coronavirus crisis enters an endemic phase, employers are beginning to see a return to pre-pandemic levels in paramedical benefits’ usage.

During the first eight months of the pandemic, many plan members put off paramedical appointments because they were uncomfortable with non-essential, in-person interactions. In addition, many paramedical services were unavailable due to restrictions and closures, which caused a delay in some patients’ care and led to reduced usage of employer-sponsored paramedical benefits, says Marie-Chantal Côté, senior vice-president of group benefits at Sun Life Canada.

“Paramedical benefits have always been highly leveraged and valued by plan members. The volume overall remains stable before and after the pandemic, but we’re seeing a shift in the benefits that are now primarily being used for a variety of reasons.”

Read: Supporting employees with chronic conditions amid pandemic-fueled delays to care

The usage of paramedical benefits is also increasing due to increased coverage of virtual physiotherapy treatments, she adds. “Once we learned more about it as an industry, Sun Life, based on discussions with experts, decided there was a lot of value in covering virtual physiotherapy services. As these services slowly adapted to the virtual health-care environment and reopened during the crisis, we saw claims start to climb back to pre-pandemic numbers.”

More employees are also using paramedical benefits for musculoskeletal conditions, which have gone largely overlooked, says Mara Notarfonzo, vice-president of total rewards at CAA Club Group. She cites the shift from the traditional structured working day — which forced employees to get up and take time away from their desks — to remote working as one possible factor.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people were using whatever flat surfaces they could find and slowly set up their proper home workstations,” she says, noting there isn’t the same intent at home to get up and move and socialize with people.

Read: 2021 Group Benefits Providers Report: Will the rising tide of virtual health-care offerings lift all boats?

Insurers have always paid close attention to the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on paramedical benefits, says Côté. “During the pandemic — and even prior — if we merge musculoskeletal disability with arthritis claims, those two categories together make up 20 per cent of our disability claims. We know that this is still an area employers must focus on.”

Employers have to be more intentional in finding ways to encourage employees to take care of their overall well-being and combat the increase in paramedical usage, says Notarfonzo. CAA Club Group hosts education sessions on wellness and links them to other programs that highlight the tools and services available. The organization also provides ergonomic assessments to help employees set up their home offices and has onsite wellness consultants.

“Employees tend to use paramedical benefits when they already have a condition and not necessarily for preventative reasons,” she says. “What CAA Club Group is trying to do is guide [employees] to other tools and services that are preventative support.”

Read: 2022 BPS coverage: How employers can combat the rise in musculoskeletal conditions

Sun Life is also seeing a significant increase in mental-health claims’ submissions, which grew 40 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the fourth quarter of 2021, says Côté. The insurer significantly increased its maximums for psychology benefits for its employees and the organization is seeing many of its plan sponsor clients take the same step.

“Prior to the pandemic, mental health was already the leading cause of long-term disability,” she says. “If you go back to 2019, 30 per cent of our LTD claims were tied to a mental-health illness or condition. That has only grown — now in our block, we’re looking at 32 per cent to 33 per cent, meaning one out of three LTD claims is attached to a mental-health condition as the primary reason for the disability.”

And when it comes to mental-health support, employees are increasingly using their benefits for psychology support and claiming across a broader set of practitioners, including social workers and psychotherapists. “There is so much demand and access is somewhat limited,” says Côté. “And, to be honest, we’re doing more collective promotion of all the tools and solutions available. As a result, claims are coming through across a broader set of practitioners.”

Read: Employers leveraging benefits, flexibility to prevent pandemic surge in disability claims