Health Insurers, Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve During COVID-19


Our review of 20 payer pandemic responses shows most consumer outreaches demand more empathy. Let's flip the switch.

Chris Bernene and Jim Fields

9 min read

Editor’s Note: The following article is part of an ongoing series offering our strategic advice and expertise on what healthcare industry stakeholders should do immediately in response to the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows are strategies and tactics that we hope will help health payers prepare for and contend with the coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID-19 is an era where times of turmoil reveal new consumer truths. In short, payers’ moment of truth is here. Some payers have risen to the occasion, playing a critical role in providing customers with COVID-19 information while taking steps to remove screening and treatment barriers.

But more can be done.

In our review of 20 different payer responses to the pandemic, we found that although customers have an abundance of information, there is little empathy conveyed in this messaging. This is a gap, but one that can be addressed with targeted tactical messaging and policy moves. Below are some ideas all plans can deploy to improve the support they are giving to customers. 

Communicate the Essentials 

All plan responses we examined had their basics covered. Every plan has developed a COVID-19 landing page that contains a wealth of information on prevention, links to public health resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website, and a general FAQ section covering a range of topics. In addition, most plans have established special services to provide enhanced support for COVID-19 patients — things like an enhanced nurse line, a COVID-19 hotline, or links to a self-diagnosis tool to determine whether a clinician consultation is needed.

Almost every plan also prominently features psychological health, too, and reminders for consumers about what mental health services are available and how to access them.

Telehealth — along with other remote ways of receiving care when capacity is constrained — has also been a central part of payer communications around COVID-19. And consumers are responding to the messaging in a big way: Teladoc, for instance, reported that patient volume was up 50 percent in the second week of March versus the first week, with over 15,000 daily visits. Not only have plans focused on building an awareness of telehealth among their clientele, but most — although not all — have also waived co-payments for telehealth and expanded access to the service even if excluded from the customer’s plan design. As each day passes, COVID-19 will more likely become the trigger event that turns remote care and telehealth into a mainstream channel for receiving medical care.

Build Deeper Customer Connections 

In grading plans on how well they do in engaging consumers in a compelling, empathetic way, the scores are mixed. In our review of plan responses, we identified three areas with “quick win” opportunities for plans to improve how they connect with consumers.

First, shift the messaging focus from “information” to “empathy.” As Lippincott wrote about how a human voice – as opposed to a cold or faceless voice – in corporate interactions builds consumer rapport, this concept must be adhered to when developing COVID-19 outreaches. That being said, we found a wide range in how payers set the tone for their communications. The best practice examples set a tone around caring in a time of crisis and have prominent, consumer-friendly descriptions organized around meaningful themes like “we’re here for you,” “protection,” and “peace of mind.” On the other hand (and more commonly), we found plans’ positioning and communications are dense and laden with insurance-speak. In these cases, the overall messaging is oriented around things like “here’s what you need to know” or “here’s how we are responding.”  This difference in tone is jarring. And it made the experience for each feel completely different – even though the actual information and policies being communicated were largely the same.

Second, look for small ways to create “bright spots” in a dark time. A little bit of thoughtfulness can go a long way in deepening customer connections.  

Aetna, for example, sends a care package to patients diagnosed with COVID-19. This package has things like over-the-counter medications and cleaning supplies to help prevent the virus from spreading further.

Cigna, as another example, is offering special services for customers who are either considered high-risk or who have transportation challenges. Other plans are providing services like free home delivery of prescription medications and prescription refills at no cost.

Consider also becoming part of this kind of movement to be right there when customers need you most. This is how customer loyalty is built. Indeed, in a time of crisis, the gestures and communication around “bright spots” must be carefully calibrated so as not to appear tone-deaf to the severity of the situation. Offerings that provide resources and extra support to reduce burdens and worries are on target; promotions of services that feel removed from the immediacy of the COVID-19 crisis (such as discounts on yoga classes or other general wellness programs) may strike consumers as incongruous in the current environment.

Third, look for ways to support your members. What perhaps seemed low priority yesterday is now a huge issue, and vice versa. Plans must recognize this is the norm for right now. And, they must ensure their responsiveness to customer needs is hour-by-hour, not day-by-day or week-to-week.

Don’t Just Respond Fast. Respond to Differentiate.

There is good news despite the above shortcomings we suggest payers address immediately. It’s that payers have moved very quickly to address consumers’ most pressing consumer needs. In doing so, they have established a baseline in communicating and engaging with consumers. The next opportunity — and the call to action — is to assess how to incorporate best practices to shift messaging and tweak policies that create a differentiated experience customers value. Payers, to their credit, have really used their heads to help customers, and we acknowledge and applaud this. But right now, however, is the time for payers to do even better and wear a little more of their hearts on their sleeves. 

Further developments in our understanding of the spread, prevention, and potential treatment of COVID-19 and its impacts on the payers and other players in the healthcare ecosystem will follow.