Across industries, perhaps no other profession has been as profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as health care workers. On the frontlines of a frightening time, these professionals carry on despite sheer physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.
Their work is essential. Their ability to work is one of the most important assets they own. It is also one of the most valuable contributions they make to their communities during these challenging times.
“The focus on the essential work of medical professionals and the need to protect their income when the unexpected strikes have never been greater,” says Matt Montminy, head of product and strategy for Employee Benefits at The Hartford.
Medical groups and hospital administrators can take steps to meet the unique needs of this competitive and growing sector. They can also help attract and retain top talent by offering health care providers specialized benefits. Here are three things to know about disability insurance for medical professionals:
1. A Profession Prone to Burnout and Turnover Requires Support
The pandemic spotlighted the need for workplace mental health support. U.S. employers from all business sectors stepped up communications for their Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other resources. The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits Study found that 70% of employers across business sectors saw an increase in the use of EAPs in the past year.
But the health care field was already beset by burnout and turnover before the pandemic. According to the National Healthcare Retention & RN Staffing Report, the average hospital has turned over 90.8% of its workforce since 2016.1
Then COVID-19 heightened burnout – and fear – on the frontlines. An American Medical Association (AMA) survey taken from May to October 2020 found that 49% of health care professionals were experiencing burnout. Additionally, 61% said they feared exposing themselves and their families to the virus.2
Employers who want to enhance their offerings should be aware that some disability carriers provide professional and confidential mental health support, such as several free therapy sessions per year. This help should not only extend to the health care professionals, but to their family members as well.
2. Income Protection Should Be Tied to Provider’s Expertise
Specifics matter. The success of a medical group depends on the unique contributions from all providers. When a medical provider is out on a disability claim, their level of financial support can come down to the definition of what they do and where they do it.
Disability income payments can be based on the occupation of the provider and how that job is performed in the general labor market, depending on the benefits plan. Providing the highest level of protection means ensuring the benefit plan is as specific as possible to the service and professional levels of the individuals covered under the plan. It’s important to define the providers’ occupations in a way that directly reflects their practice specialties within their employers’ medical group, including their specific job requirements and hours worked.
Specialty designations should also include the non-physician providers in a practice such as nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified registered nurse anesthetists.
Picture this: A physician’s assistant (PA) in an oncology practice who routinely removes skin tissue develops a tremor that affects her ability to remove the tissue. She has suffered a loss of capability associated with how she performs her specific job versus her occupation as defined in the general labor market. Performing surgical procedures on a daily basis is not an essential duty of a PA in the general labor market. Her benefits should be tied to her loss of income based on how she routinely provides care at her employer.
“Every medical group – large or small – relies on the individual expertise of their providers,” Montminy says. “Protecting those specialized occupations is key to the financial well-being of medical professionals and the financial success of the overall practice.”
This is particularly important since demand is increasing for clinicians like physician assistants, nurse practitioners and certified registered nurse anesthetists. Citing the need for more health care services for aging Americans and greater emphasis on preventive care, the U.S. Department of Labor expects a 45% jump in non-physician provider jobs from 2019-2029.3
3. The Burden of Medical School Debt Can Be Eased
To attract new health care providers, employers should recognize the unique financial burden these professionals can carry for many years. The health care field has some of the highest loan obligations in the nation. The average medical school debt is about $200,000.4
Many employers in various industries offer student loan repayment programs for employees. That approach received a boost during the pandemic when Congress enacted and then later extended the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Under the federal law, employers can offer up to $5,250 in tax exempt contributions for student loan repayment through 2025.
Some disability benefits can also address the medical school debt while incentivizing a safe return to work. The Hartford’s disability insurance for medical professionals, for example, provides additional benefits for student loans for individuals who partially return to work. That means those providers who partially work while disabled could get a higher disability payment to help pay down the loan or to use the extra cash where it’s most needed.
As the U.S. slowly moves through the pandemic, health care workers may long be remembered as those everyday heroes who put aside their own fears and exhaustion to help heal a nation. Supporting them for their essential work and unique needs has never been more crucial.
1 2021 National Healthcare Retention & RN Staffing Report, NSI Nursing Solutions, Inc.
2 AMA Coping with COVID-19 for Caregivers Survey, June 2021
3 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
4 Association of American Medical Colleges, October 2020