What’s ahead for benefits policy this year?

It’s never a slow time when it comes to health and benefits policy. Issues are constantly in flux, which impacts HR and company leaders and how they approach their employee benefits strategies.

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And 2022 is no exception, with the year marking midterm elections as well as the third year of COVID-19—both of which will influence a number of legislative issues. So what’s at stake for HR and benefits leaders? As usual, there’s a lot, says Jim Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, a Washington D.C.-based employee benefits public policy organization.

Klein will be speaking about it all on April 7 at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.

Ahead of his session, HRE caught up with Klein about what’s ahead for health and benefits policy, how COVID-19 is affecting employer strategies and what he’ll discuss next month.

HRE: Will 2022 be a big year for health and benefits policy? What kind of moves do you expect in the coming year?

Jim Klein, American Benefits Council
Jim Klein, American Benefits Council

Klein: It is turning into a strange year. Since President Biden’s comprehensive Build Back Better legislation is stalled, he and Congressional Democrats will look for opportunities to separately move parts of the benefits agenda—controls on prescription drug costs, civil penalties for mental health parity violations and so on. But legislative vehicles to do that are limited. So there will be considerable regulatory activity since that is how the executive branch can put its stamp on public policy even when there is legislative gridlock.

HRE: What are the most important issues for HR leaders to follow this year?

Klein: The pandemic has put the issue of paid leave at the forefront of the policy agenda. There will be a concerted effort to move some legislation. But it is likely only to be developed and not passed this year. The Democrats very badly want to deliver something on prescription drug costs. So that is an important one to watch to hopefully ensure that whatever might pass to mitigate costs for the Medicare program does not shift costs to private payors.

HRE: There’s been so much back-and-forth on COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Although the Supreme Court earlier this year blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for employers—which required businesses with 100 or more employees to implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for their workers or offer a weekly testing alternative—there are still patchwork state and city laws around vaccine requirements for employees. How big of an issue are these vaccine policies? And any predictions for workplace vaccine policies in the month/year ahead?

Klein: For nationwide employers, a patchwork of state and local laws presents particular challenges for administration, cost and equitable treatment of workers. Most employers I have spoken with strongly believe in the importance of people getting vaccinated but are not necessarily supportive of mandates on workers to do so, knowing that it will lead to some workers joining the Great Resignation.

Related: What’s Keeping HR Up at Night? The Great Resignation and more, our survey shows

Of course, there are other employers who liked the idea of the federal government mandating vaccines because they felt it is important to keep their workforce healthy and because they have some employees and customers who don’t want to be in close proximity to those who are not vaccinated. As the pandemic appears to be easing, these issues will presumably be less urgent unless, God forbid, we see a resurgence or a new variant of the virus.

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HRE: The American Benefits Council compiled a “Silver Linings Pandemic Playbook” last year, profiling companies that went above and beyond to help workers during COVID-19. What are some of these best practices? And, as the pandemic continues and enters its third year, what else do you expect smart employers will do to help their employees?

Klein: Employers responded in all sorts of creative ways, such as providing extra paid leave and support for childcare. As we all know, the need for mental health services has risen dramatically as a result of the pandemic and employers have stepped in to help their workers and families access those resources.

Ginger Zee of ABC News to headline Health & Benefits Leadership Conference 2022Related: How employers can help as mental health bottoms out

HRE: What can attendees expect to learn at your HBLC session? 

Klein: In addition to discussing the substantive benefits issues under discussion, I hope to explain how the political climate in Washington is shaping the process by which legislation is being considered and in turn how that process is determining what policies are actually able to be considered.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.