Health Coverage for the Extended Family, Coming Soon?

The trend of multiple generations living under one roof is changing the idea of the traditional family household, but the health insurance industry hasn’t been keeping up with the new living situation.

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The economic environment has forced many families to live together, often with adult children taking care of their live-in elderly parents in addition to their children’s needs. While these families are used to sharing living expenses and chores, many extended family members aren’t able to share in the working person’s health insurance because many employers don’t offer this benefit.

“The traditional nuclear family is becoming more and more outdated,” says Evan Richardson, vice president of product at health-care company Grand Rounds. “A lot of families don’t match the traditional notion of what a family is; similarly, we don’t see benefits that are important to families.”

In many cases, the only option for people dealing with a sick parent is to rely on federal health-care plans like Medicare or Medicaid, supplemental insurance or pay for the medical costs out of pocket, which can be extremely costly.

But experts expect insurance coverage options to broaden to meet growing demand from the so-called “sandwich generation” for their employers to offer coverage for more than their spouse and children.

With competition fierce for employers to attract and retain highly-skilled workers, many are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from competitors and offering health benefits beyond the immediate family may be that secret sauce.

The trend of workers taking care of aging parents is only expected to continue. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent who is over the age of 65 and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a child 18 or older. About 1 in 7 middle-aged adults is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.

“Those numbers are evolving and will probably continue to grow as baby boomers continue to age,” says Richardson.

A recent survey by Grand Rounds, which provides employers and consumers with access to top doctors, found that 60% of U.S. employees with parents feel extending health benefits is, at the very least, “somewhat important” while 68% report they would be more likely to choose an employer that offers free access to expert medical opinions for their extended family when deciding over multiple offers.

Richardson says his company works with employers to offer its service as an added perk to workers, giving them access to medical opinions from physicians around the world. Once a patient visits a doctor and wants a second opinion, he or she fills out a digital profile with Grand Rounds, which them sends the information out electronically, and as short as 48 hours later, expert advice is issued from one of the participating doctors.

Digital file sending company Hightail in California uses Grand Rounds and offers the service to workers and their families—including spouses, children, parents or siblings.

Lynne Collins, vice president of human resources at Hightail, says the offering helps the company differentiate itself from competitors.

“When employees ask about this benefit, it’s usually related to a family member and not themselves,” says Collins.