Focusing on vision-care benefits in year two of the pandemic

By: Lauren Bailey   March 31, 2021  Benefits Canada (interview of Chris Pryce)

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It’s easy for employers to focus less on table-stakes benefits offerings like vision care when there’s the the coronavirus pandemic to contend with. But, experts argue, as Canada and the world enters the second year of this crisis now is the perfect time for employers to take a second look at their vision-care benefits offerings and make changes in preparation for the post-pandemic world.

While offerings, such as virtual mental-health apps, have snagged much of the attention of both employers and employees amid the coronavirus crisis, vision-care benefits can be the kind of lower-key offering that ultimately helps employers attract and retain top talent.

A fresh view on eye-care benefits
While Canada has a robust public-health system, some eye-related health-care — from bi-annual check-ups to glasses frames and lenses — are generally not covered by government-funded plans. And traditionally, employers have stepped in to help employees and their dependents with eye-care related costs via private benefits plan.

Although eye-care benefits, like dental benefits, are a very common feature in Canadian benefits plans, most employers would do well to apply a wider lens to eye-care coverage, says Kim Siddall, People Corporation Inc.’s vice-president of enterprise consulting for the West. She advises plan sponsors taking a look at their benefits program to measure it against their benefits philosophy.

And investing in eye-care benefits specifically can pay off, with a 2020 best practices guidebook by the Canadian Association of Optometrists noting that poor vision costs employers indirectly, as it can impact employee productivity, absenteeism and mental health. The association’s report also noted in 2016, nearly one million Canadians missed work or school because of vision problems.

Additionally, according to optometrist Dr. Harry Bohnsack, the eyes can be a window to other diseases. He says during eye exams, optometrists may detect chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure, and then often refer patients to specialists. Catching chronic diseases early via eye exams can ultimately result in cost savings for employees and employers’ health plans, he argues.

In light of this, Siddall says vision-related benefits should be considered part of an overall benefits strategy; however, oftentimes, “they’re seen just as a benefit for glasses — as opposed to a tool for proactive-health management for employees.”

The Canadian Association of Optometrists recently released a series of recommendations for vision-care plan design, noting the need for coverage of modern diagnostic services and interventions, enhanced benefits for those with higher needs — such as the aging working population — and re-alignment with current best practices. The association also suggested employers consider structuring their benefits to include the majority of comprehensive eye-exam services.

Chris Pryce, founder and president of Human Capital Benefits, suggests employers align vision-care benefits closer to employees’ needs by increasing the coverage overall, breaking up the amounts for frames and glasses and including a separate eye-exam maximum.

And he says advisors and employers should look at creative ways to move the funding for these benefits out of traditional, fully insured programs and into other vehicles to reduce the administrative charges. Pryce says administration fees for vision-care benefits can range from 10 per cent to 40 per cent, depending on the size of the plan, and the smaller the group plan, the higher the fee — which can be burdensome for small- to mid-sized companies. “Plan sponsors could opt to make the vision-care benefit self-insured, keeping it through a provider but outside of a standard-insured contract, such as health-care spending accounts where administrative fees are closer to 10 per cent.”

Seeing significant shifts
While the nuts-and-bolts of most employers’ eye-care benefits offerings haven’t changed much in recent years, patient behaviour has shifted significantly in response to the pandemic.

A September 2020 report from insurance comparison platform found Canadians avoided a range of health providers during the first wave of the pandemic, leading to a 71 per cent drop in private health insurance payouts over the first six months of 2020. And optical and dental-care appointments dropped more than 90 per cent in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2018 and appointments with specialists dropped 73 per cent. And according to the Ontario Association of Optometrists, during the first wave of the pandemic, trips to the eye doctor went down 50 per cent. The professional association expected the loss of nearly two million comprehensive eye exams between June 2020 and May 2021 due to strict physical-distancing and infection-control guidelines.

Given the significant drop in visits, vision-care benefits claims have likely also dropped in the 13 months (and counting) since a global pandemic was officially declared. What impact, if any, this will have on employee eye health is yet to be fully seen.

But, Dr. Bohnsack says, in general, he’s found his patients are spending more hours at home in front of computer screens during the day and in front of television and mobile device screens at night, leading to an increase in incidences of eye strain. The significant shifts in behavior due to lockdowns and social-distancing advice, mean he’s seen many patients who are now experiencing symptoms of eye strain, such as red eye, sore eyes, headaches and postural issues, due to spending so much time in front of an array of tech devices.

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