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Advance Employees’ Benefits ‘Reading’ And ‘Math’ Skills

As a country, our students’ scores are dropping in vital subjects after two and a half years of educational disruption. What does this mean for our workplaces and healthcare system? 

There’s an epidemic lag in the wake of the pandemic that is triggering a domino effect that will eventually—if it hasn’t already—impact the delivery of healthcare. It goes back to the classroom. The educational decline that occurred during Covid wiped out three decades of gains. 

Since March 2020, the country has seen the largest learning loss in modern history, according to the Wall Street Journal article, “How to End the Epidemic of Failure in America’s Schools.” With schools closing in response to Covid, our youngest students have spent about 25% of their lives so far with mask requirements or learning disruptions. 

September’s Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that between 2020 and 2022, average reading scores for 9-year-olds declined 5 points—half of a grade level. Math scores dropped 7 points, more than half of a grade level. This is the first score decline in math and the greatest average score decline in reading since 1990. The report showed that fourth and eighth graders in every state struggled.

What does this mean for accessing quality care, understanding benefits and assuring that our employees utilize healthcare properly? Let’s consider the math and reading of a complex “subject”: employer healthcare benefits. 

How well do your employees understand deductibles and copays—their financial responsibilities and the contributions you make on their behalf? It’s basic math. If you have a co-insurance that is 80%, how do you calculate 20%? When employees are unable to do this math, they are unable to calculate the cost of a healthcare visit or create an annual budget for their expected medical expenses.  In addition, the system loses its checks and balances because consumers are not accurately “checking” the numbers and can misunderstand their financial obligations. 

Think about prescription medications and the math involved in dosage and even cutting a pill in half to take 15 mg rather than 10 mg of a drug. If the prescription calls for multiple doses per day and a person forgets to take a pill, will he or she know how to count what was missed and do the math to subtract that from the bottle’s contents? Sure, it sounds simple. But it’s also easy to make mistakes or simply not problem-solve for the sake of one’s own health.

Other math factors relate to knowing your numbers: body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, blood pressure and so on. Do your employees know how to benchmark their numbers with what is considered healthy? Do those taking blood pressure medications understand that when they put on a cuff to monitor it, the numbers are “just fine” because of the medication?

As for reading, you might need to simplify enrollment communications and lunch and learns to explain benefits and address health topics. Are you translating legalese and technical information into layman’s terms? Storytelling using real-life scenarios can help employees “read” benefits and how to use them. 

As the Wall Street Journal article suggested, confronting the education lag head-on requires adapting and teaching, not lowering expectations. And in a time when the nation is experiencing a significant doctor shortage, appointment wait times are months long, and ERs are full of patients with lifestyle-driven diseases like Diabetes, we need to take a good hard look at the math and reading of benefits and how we are educating our employees. Speaking of which, November is National Diabetes Month—and Diabetes II is a preventable disease. We can provide education and resources to help employees make lifestyle changes that will turn the chronic condition around so they do not become frequent flyers in the ER. 

We have a greater responsibility than ever before to “teach benefits” because healthcare is complex and navigating a changing system is difficult. There are gaps. We can fill those by guiding employees with clear and helpful information. Ultimately, our goal should be to advance their benefits reading and math skillsets to keep them healthy. 

And as we work toward connecting with our employees, providing resources and education – we can help communicate the value of benefits and how they improve our health with messages of gratitude. Not only does this grow awareness for the tools we have, it also promotes mindfulness and better mental health. Ask your people this month to identify three things they are grateful for. Why not spend November keeping gratitude journals and then meeting regularly to share with one another? It’s one more way to stay healthy together. 

About Health Action Council 
Health Action Council is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization representing mid-and large-size employers that enhance human and economic health through thought leadership, innovative services, and collaboration. It provides value to its members by facilitating projects that improve the quality and moderate the cost of healthcare purchased by its members for their employees, dependents, and retirees. Health Action Council also collaborates with key stakeholders – health plans, physicians, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry – to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the community.

Patty Starr bio image

About the author

Patty Starr

Patty Starr is president and CEO of Health Action Council and is responsible for driving the strategic direction of the organization--build stronger, healthier communities where business can thrive. 

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