The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association has been conducting weekly calls with its members since mid-January to discuss issues around the ongoing coronavirus crisis, including how insurers can develop messaging and policies to communicate to plan sponsors.
“We’ve basically been facilitating weekly calls to say, ‘OK, we have a very fluid situation.’ It changes almost daily, so [we’re] talking about best practices, talking about what’s known and what’s unknown,” says Joan Weir, the CHLIA’s director of health and disability policy.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. But even before that stark announcement the CHLIA had been helping its member companies — which account for 99 per cent of Canada’s life and health insurance business — develop short-term disability leave policies for their plan sponsor clients to in turn communicate to plan members.
About six weeks ago, the CLHIA began recommending that plan sponsors waive the waiting period for short-term disability benefits if an employee is quarantined so they can stay at home and still receive their salary. “And we . . . developed an industry form where the person fills [it] out on their own, so as not to make them go to a physician to get a referral, which is a really important part of this, right? Because you don’t want someone who is possibly infected going into a health-care practitioners’ office and infecting everyone else.”
Over the past several weeks, Canada’s major insurers have been communicating with plan sponsors regarding everything from disability coverage to travel insurance to employee assistance programs. Last week, RBC Insurance Services Inc. sent a message to its plan sponsor clients saying it was giving a “time limited exception” to the need for an attending physician’s statement for a short-term disability claim and provided a form that could be filled out by plan members and then emailed to RBC directly.
In an emailed statement, Canada Life said it’s waiving the waiting period for short-term disability benefits for those who are eligible due to the coronavirus. It’s also considering claims for individuals who are under quarantine at the direction of a physician, treatment provider or other public health official, and who are also unable to work from home.
“We are adopting this approach to help minimize any financial disincentive to support the quarantine efforts across Canada,” wrote a spokesperson for the insurer. “As a leading provider of group health benefits, Canada Life, together with our industry peers, has been working with the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association on an industry approach to handling claims relating to the coronavirus. Most of the concerns we have been hearing from plan members relate to out-of-country medical emergency and travel assistance, as well as disability coverage.”
In RBC’s note, it advised that plan members who contract coronavirus while abroad, or who are being quarantined abroad, should call a toll-free number to get more information about their specific situation. In general, the insurer said its emergency medical coverage will be extended automatically for the full duration of the quarantine and until plan members can return back to Canada at no extra charge.
Canada Life is assessing claims relating to coronavirus based on the terms of the plan member’s respective group benefits plan, including any claims that occur during travel to a country with a travel advisory warning, according to the emailed statement.
In terms of personal travel, March break is coming up next week, so employers will have to come up with policies regarding employees returning from international holidays, says Weir.
Plan sponsors and insurers can, and should, consider lessons learned from previous global health emergencies, such as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and the SARS outbreak in 2003, says Alex Boucher, principal and total health management leader at Mercer Canada.
“Dust off your old pandemic plans. . . . It’s the right time to revisit those plans around communicating,” he says. “We strongly recommend employers and insurers review those plans for applicability. And our overall message for Canadian organizations is that preparation is better than reaction.”