3 health care trends impacting employers in 2024

Specialty medications for treating cancer, weight-loss drugs and an increasing need for behavioral health benefits are all going to be top of mind for employers in 2024.

As 2024 begins, employers are facing some challenges. Costs are still rising — with no end in sight: Employer medical costs are projected to increase by 7% in 2024,1 and there are 2 times the number of claims with $3M or more since 2016.2

“As we’re returning to more normal post-pandemic utilization of the health care system, we’re seeing the conversation switch to the prevalence of cancer and specialty drugs and treatments, GLP-1s to treat obesity and behavioral health,” says Craig Kurtzweil, chief data & analytics officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual. “But underpinning it all is a concern around costs.”

1. The high cost of specialty medications for treating cancer

Around the world, early-onset cancer is increasing among adults younger than 50, according to a new study.3 In other words, cancer is rising among employees in the prime of their working years.

“Cancer is almost across the board the number one or number two cost-driver for employers, but what’s different now are the specialty medications for treating those cancers,” Kurtzweil says. “They’re good because they’re saving lives, but the cost of those medications is through the roof.”

What does this mean for an employer’s health care strategy? To help contain health care spend, employers may want to go with a plan that guides employees to the optimal site-of-care, such as an outpatient facility. Or it may mean integrating medical and pharmacy benefits that make it more seamless for employees to make better decisions around cost.

2. The continued need for more behavioral health support

More than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness, and more than 1 in 5 U.S. children, ages 13 to 18, currently live with a mental illness or had one in the past.4 In other words, behavioral health conditions are all too common, and they have ripple effects on employees’ work (think: increased absenteeism and decreased productivity).5

What’s more: 92% of surveyed employees said it’s important to work for an employer who values their emotional and psychological well-being and provides supports for employee mental health.6

What does this mean for an employer’s health care strategy? Employers may want to look at offering their employees and their families quality behavioral health benefits, which have a track record of accessibility whether that’s in-person, virtual or self-help support.

3. The decision about whether to cover medications that treat obesity

The topic of obesity will loom large in 2024. By 2030, the World Obesity Federation (WOF) projected that more than half of the world’s population will be obese by 2035 — the economic impact of that will be more than $4T.7 GLP-1 drugs, which have dominated the pharmacy news in 2023, have garnered attention for their ability to drive weight loss. However, GLP-1s, which have been primarily used to treat diabetes, are also very costly.

What does this mean for an employer’s health care strategy? Employers are under a lot of pressure to cover GLP-1 drugs, but they’re so expensive that they could potentially double an employer’s health care costs, Kurtzweil says. “Employers are very concerned about obesity and GLP-1s,” Kurtzweil says. “It’s really one of the biggest decisions they have to make: Are they going to cover it or are they not?”

If employers do decide to cover some of the cost of these drugs for their employees, they may want to consider offering other weight loss management strategies like counseling, exercise and nutrition programs to help augment that these drugs kickstart long-lasting change in employees.

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