Employee benefits plans don’t reflect current health challenges: study

Massage Therapy Canada staff
April 14, 2015
By Massage Therapy Canada staff
A new study of health benefits usage reveals people are increasingly using paramedical services, such as massage therapy, chiropractic and orthotics, and beginning at a younger age.
A year-long study of health benefits usage by Green Shield Canada clients showed users spent approximately $144 million on prescription eye glasses, orthotic shoes, and chiropractic and massage serves last year.

“For the first time in the health benefits industry, data from the comprehensive study includes prescription drugs, eyewear and paramedical services, and it shows how benefits programs are being used and that the dollars spent do not align with the predominant health challenges facing Canadians,” according to a Green Shield Canada press release.

It said out of the $144 million Green Shield clients spent on paramedical services, only $100,000, or under one per cent, was spent on dietitians and nutritionists. “This despite studies showing type-2 diabetes has doubled in Canada since the year 2000 and eating habits are a significant contributor to the disease,” the company said.

The benefits provider also cited as “most surprising” the rapid increase of paramedical services at younger and younger ages, including chiropractic care for infants and massages for teenagers. The highest expenditure of any service was for massage which starts in the 20s age range and continues well through the 50s.

“This trend is seen at a time when chronic disease such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes increasingly dominate employee populations and drive significant costs to the health care system,” the company said on its statement.

However, the benefits of massage therapy in managing pre-hypertension, particularly among women, have been shown in previous research. A study published in May 2013 in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found massage therapy was a safe, effective and cost-effective intervention in controlling blood pressure of pre-hypertension women.

Green Shield Canada is not advocating for discontinuing coverage for paramedicals, but suggests there is a risk that they are increasing at the expense of other critically important health strategies and treatments.

“The plans and the spending habits of Canadian employees and their families are growing apart from the largest health challenges that face them. What employees and their dependents like and want versus what they may need must be balanced better for the future,” says David Willows, vice-president, strategic market solutions, Green Shield Canada. “The industry and employers need to re-orient how we look at benefits plans given the reality of how they are being perceived and used.”

Escalating drug costs are also a major concern for the future, according to Green Shield. During the study period, the predominant debate was about the ability of Canadian employers to afford escalating benefits costs to cover expensive drugs for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and hepatitis C.

“Yes, these drugs cost a lot, and, while our industry is united in the belief that Canadian employers and individual consumers pay unnecessarily high prices, what cannot be denied is the positive impact they can have on employees,” said Willows. “A drug that can cure hepatitis C or move someone with rheumatoid arthritis from a bed back to work is a sound investment for an employer.”

“This study clearly shows that there must be a real discussion about the traditional employee benefits plan,” adds Willows. “We know people like getting their glasses and massages paid for, but demands for expensive but highly effective drugs and chronic health care are increasing rapidly.

There must be a real discussion about employee benefits plans and how they are increasingly out of synch with the reality of our health management needs today and into the future.”

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