As the coronavirus pandemic expands, my colleagues and I have been in close touch with countless companies helping them navigate the challenges this situation is presenting their businesses, their people and the communities around them. Mercer is a global human resources advisor that helps thousands of U.S. employers provide health and retirement benefits to millions of Americans, which gives us a close connection and clear view into the challenges and needs of businesses during this uncertain time. We are inspired by the strength and humanity of so many business owners who are focused on keeping their teams employed.
We closely watched and studied the policy proposals at the federal level. Many have considerable merit, including much needed paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and coronavirus testing and care. As we consider the urgent needs of American businesses, we sent letters to the White House and both Chambers of Congress, advocating for three specific inclusions in the current federal aid package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
First, the business community is aligned around the need for mandatory, no participant cost-sharing coverage in all health care plans and programs – public and private – for coronavirus testing and related services. Getting there quickly requires adjustments to current insurance eligibility standards. We now know that accessible, rapid testing is critical to managing the spread of disease. Timely diagnoses will get care to those who need it most and help us speed up our return to normal. The more we test for coronavirus and are able to determine who actually has and carries the disease, the less we need the drastic social distancing measures being put in place today at great personal and economic cost.
The Trump administration and Congress can eliminate barriers to coronavirus testing and treatment by deeming pre-deductible telemedicine services to be HSA-compatible and therefore available to individuals without cost sharing. Moreover, this standard should apply to all telemedicine services, not just related to coronavirus, through at least 2020. This policy would discourage people from visiting medical providers for non-emergency care in the midst of the pandemic. In addition, telemedicine providers may not be able to differentiate between services related to coronavirus screening and other services, which would complicate implementation of an HSA-compatible no cost-sharing policy for only testing and treatment related to the pandemic.
Second, the U.S. should ensure paid leave to those directly affected by the virus – and critically should also reimburse small businesses for the unexpected financial burden it brings. Many employers deserve enormous credit for taking voluntary action to provide paid leave to their employees – with programs that go well beyond what is required by law – and to protect the safety and health of their employees and families by removing cost barriers to care. They are doing a service for their employees and serving the common good by reducing the number of symptomatic employees who may otherwise come to work, which would put their co-workers and the public at risk. Many of these employers are doing so at significant financial cost and risk and the government should support their efforts.
Third, Congress and the administration should make sure that any package that helps employers provide additional assistance to their employees does so in a way that reflects the needs of American businesses of all sizes. Any legislation addressing paid leave issues must recognize that many employers have operations in multiple states and municipalities. The development of myriad state and local paid leave laws has been an unwieldy compliance challenge for employers well before the coronavirus outbreak, which is likely to spur even more state and local requirements. Employers need to be able to provide nationally uniform and consistent leave to their employees in order to move as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Exceptional times require exceptional measures, and that’s what we’ve seen in the early days of the pandemic. Many among the global business community have quickly stepped up to put employees first -- from voluntarily extending benefits to encouraging remote work to closing down stores ahead of any orders to do so, in spite of the financial cost. Now it’s time for the U.S. government to do its part by delivering assistance that is broad, strategic, and responsive to the needs of those who keep the economy going and our people employed.