A Futurist Past

Salisbury

Salisbury

By Dallas Salisbury, EBRI

At EBRI’s 35th anniversary policy forum last December, it occurred to me that one of the youngest minds in the room happened to belong to the oldest panelist we had invited. Arnold Brown, 87 when he spoke at our forum, was nationally renowned not only for his insightful observations about the future, but his often surprising predictions of how the American labor force—and the employment-based benefits on which they depend—might change in response. How fitting that the forum panel on which he participated was titled “The Road to Tomorrow.”¹

So I was especially saddened to hear of his recent passing, shortly before his 88th birthday. He died surrounded by family, who described him as “brilliant, witty, wise and generous.” Having followed him and his work closely in my own career, I would agree with all that and more.

At a time when news reports warn of the “technological divide” between the young and the old in this country, Brown’s specialty was using hard data to help us understand why and how technology is changing our lives. Ironically for a tech-head, he started out as an English major (he graduated with honors from UCLA), before going on to serve in the Navy.

Arnold Brown

Arnold Brown

His big break on the national stage came when he was vice-chairman of the American Council of Life Insurers, where in 1969 he created ACLI’s Trend Analysis Program. This was the first, and considered among the best, “environmental scanning programs” that focused on long-range business planning and strategy. In 1977, he formed his own company, Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., consultants in strategic planning and the management of change, where many of the biggest companies in the world would become clients. Not surprisingly, he served as board chairman of the World Future Society.

Much of his recent work focused on the trend toward “deskilled workers,” as more and more employers turn to computers, software, and robots to replace both blue-collar and white-collar human employees. He pointed out the many ripple effects that is already having and will have going forward, especially on state and federal social insurance programs that depend on taxes drawn from employment payrolls to survive. As workers are increasingly replaced by robots, Brown asked at the EBRI forum, “Should we require employers of robots to pay Social Security for them?”

Among his other thought-provoking, data-driven points at the EBRI forum:

  • The prolonged recession has masked what he called a “profound transformation of the economy” driven by automation, one that has to do with the very nature of work and jobs as the nation moves into the future. In 2012, he noted, approximately 85 percent of robots were purchased were for manufacturing purposes, and within the next few years 30 percent or more of robots will be for non-manufacturing, white-collar use.
  • Part-time, contract, and temporary workers are becoming the norm worldwide. Brown noted that in France in 2012, 82 percent of the new jobs created were temporary, and in Germany, what are referred to as “mini jobs” (low-paid, short-term jobs) now comprise 20 percent of all jobs in that economy. Another aspect of this job trend: Of the 16-to-25-year-old cohort not currently in school, barely a third (36 percent) have full-time jobs, and a major reason for this is new technology (such as 3-D printing), he said.
  • The upshot is that “The old model of the contract between employer and employee is increasingly obsolete,” Brown said at the EBRI forum, and “more and more, we will need a new model of what the relationship will be between the employer and the employee.” Over the next 35 years, he predicted, there will evolve “an entirely different, unprecedented relationship in the workplace between employers and employees, and what the consequences of that will be are really very profound in terms of what your businesses will be facing.”

Professionally, I greatly admired his acute use of data to make highly informed analysis about the future. Personally, I deeply admired how someone almost in his 90s lived so much in the future.

In Washington, there is naturally great attention given to how federal law (particularly tax law) and regulation affect business and employee benefits. But Arnold Brown’s focus was elsewhere: How the economy—and the underlying technology and skills that drive it—affect not only the business world, but society as a whole, faster and far more powerfully than even government policy.

His keen mind and often accurate predictions will be missed.

Notes

¹ The complete report on the EBRI 35th anniversary policy forum, “Employee Benefits: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday,” is published in the July EBRI Issue Brief and is online here.

“Picture” Window

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

As an individual who spends a lot of his time writing (and reading the writing of others), I’ve always had reservations about the notion that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” though I’ll grant you that an image, a well-crafted graph, or even a flow chart can, in certain instances, more quickly and more effectively convey an idea or concept than words alone.

I remember a conversation with a friend of mine a couple of years ago about EBRI’s Lillywhite Award. My friend, who had been something of a mentor to me over the years, was asking me about the award, the selection process, and what type of individual/accomplishments we were seeking to acknowledge. I tried as best I could to go over the history and purpose of the award: that it was established in 1992 to celebrate contributions by persons who have had distinguished careers in the investment management and employee benefits fields and whose outstanding service enhances Americans’ economic security. That it was intended to recognize lifetime or long-term contributions to the fields of pension/retirement administration, investment management, legislation, marketing, research-education, consulting on investments or benefits, or publications/reporting.

And then I mentioned Ray Lillywhite, for whom the award is named, and—in an instant—my friend “got it.”

Ray was a true pioneer in the pension field. For decades he guided state employee pension plans, and helped found numerous professional organizations and educational programs, finally retiring from Alliance Capital at the age of 80 after a 55-year career in the pension and investment field. Throughout his career, Ray exemplified not only excellence, but also innovation in lifelong achievements, teaching, and learning.

While I never had the pleasure of meeting Ray in person, it has been my great fortune to meet and benefit from the work, education and guidance of a number of Lillywhite Award recipients over the course of my career: Principal Financial Group’s CEO Larry Zimpleman, who was last year’s recipient; Stanford University’s Bill Sharpe; Pension & Investments’ Mike Clowes; Russell Investment’s Don Ezra; and, of course, EBRI’s own Dallas Salisbury, to name a few.

These individuals, as well as the rest of the long and distinguished list of EBRI Lillywhite Award recipients[1] do indeed help paint a picture of what the award was designed to acknowledge—individuals who have each, in their own unique way, influenced the direction of employee benefits, and over the course of their careers helped make things better for others, whose “outstanding service enhances Americans’ economic security.”

Indeed, a picture” may, or may not, always be worth a thousand words. But sometimes a “picture” can be worth more than mere words can say.

 NOTES

EBRI’s Lillywhite Award acknowledges the best of the best in the investment management and employee benefits fields. I’m betting you know, admire, and would like to acknowledge the contributions they’ve made. If so, I’d encourage you to nominate them for this prestigious award—today, online here.  

More information about the EBRI Lillywhite Award is online here.

[1] The list of previous EBRI Lillywhite Award recipients is online here

“Free” Money?

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

While I appreciate the convenience of gift cards, giving them always feels a bit lazy. As a recipient, however, I very much appreciate the flexibility and the freedom to buy, within the limits of the card, pretty much anything—sometimes things for which I wouldn’t even have thought to ask much less buy for myself. And, arguably, in at least a couple of cases, things I SHOULDN’T have bought, and probably wouldn’t have bought, if it hadn’t felt like “free” money.

That very human inclination to spend our own money more judiciously than what we are given underpins the growing interest in consumer-directed health plans, such as the now decade-old health savings account (HSA), or its slightly older cousin, the health reimbursement arrangement, or HRA[i]. Both are designed to provide workers the ability to pay for health care-related expenses with funds drawn from the account – and yet, EBRI’s 2013 Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey (CEHCS)[ii] found evidence that adults with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to exhibit a number of cost-conscious behaviors related to use of health care services.

Specifically, the analysis found that those with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to:

  • report that they asked for a generic drug instead of a brand name (52 percent HSA vs. 49 percent HRA);
  • check the price of a service before getting care (41 percent HSA vs. 34 percent HRA);
  • ask a doctor to recommend less-costly prescriptions (40 percent HSA vs. 38 percent HRA);
  • develop a budget to manage health care expenses (32 percent HSA vs. 22 percent HRA); and
  • use an online, cost-tracking tool provided by the health plan (27 percent HSA vs. 21 percent HRA).

Moreover, the 2013 CEHCS also found that adults with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to be engaged in their choice of health plan, when they had a choice. They were, according to the analysis, more likely to report that they had talked to friends, family, and colleagues about the plans; used other websites to learn about health plan choices; and were more likely to have consulted with both their employer’s HR staff and an insurance broker to understand plan choices, among other things.

HRAs and HSAs are very similar, so why might those differences in behavior occur between those covered by the two plan types? Consider that an HRA is an employer-funded health plan that reimburses employees for qualified medical expenses, in contrast to the HSA, which can have both employer and employee contributions. HRAs are generally “notional” accounts maintained by the employer, and while funds unspent at the end of each year can be carried over for future use, that option is at the employer’s discretion.

On the other hand, and as the EBRI report notes, an HSA is owned by the individual and is completely portable, with no annual “use-it-or-lose-it” rule. Additionally, those who do not use all the money in their HSA during their working years can use it to pay out-of-pocket expenses after they retire.

Said another way, for most people the HSA balance probably feels like it is “their” money[iii], and they spend it accordingly, while their HRA feels more like a gift card with an expiration date. It’s certainly not “free” money, but it may feel that way to them.

  • Notes

[i] Overall, 26.1 million individuals with private insurance, representing 15 percent of the market, were either in an HRA or an HSA-eligible plan.  See “Who Has “Consumer-Driven” Health Plans?

[ii]Consumer Engagement Among HSA and HRA Enrollees: Findings from the 2013 EBRI/Greenwald & Associates Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey,” is published in the June EBRI Notes here.

[iii] In many cases it is, of course, literally funded by their contributions.

Pre-Existing Conditions?

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

Much has been made of the so-called employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and its postponements. Of course, as a recent EBRI publication points out, the mandate (currently slated to be enforced effective in 2015) applies only to employers with 50 or more full-time workers – and most of these employers already offer health coverage to their workers. Last year, 91 percent of employers with 50–199 workers offered coverage, as did 99 percent of employers with 200 or more workers, according to the EBRI analysis.

However, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) defines a full-time employee as one who works 30 or more hours per week, on average – well below the 40-hour-week threshold typically associated with full-time employment. As a result, there is concern that employers may respond by cutting back on health coverage for part-time workers or by decreasing part-timer hours to keep them below the 30-hour-week threshold.

The EBRI report notes that, overall, there were 20 million workers employed under 30 hours per week and 18.8 million employed 30–39 hours per week in 2012. Among those employed between 30 and 39 hours per week, 6.3 million (33.6 percent) had employment-based coverage from their own job. In contrast, 60.5 percent of workers employed at least 40 hours per week had employment-based coverage from their own job.

Has the PPACA led to a reduction in hours? The EBRI analysis finds that between 2006 and 2010 (the year that PPACA was signed into law), the percentage of workers employed fewer than 30 hours per week increased from 11.9 percent to 14.1 percent, while the percentage of workers employed 30–39 hours per week also increased, from 11.4 percent to 13.2 percent over the period. Since passage of PPACA, there has actually been a slight drop in the use of part-time workers, though this may be attributable to the drop in the unemployment rate.

Indeed, the percentage of workers with coverage through their own job has been trending downward since 2007 regardless of hours worked per week. However, in relative terms, the EBRI report notes that part-time workers have experienced a much larger decline in coverage than full-time workers. Between 2007 and 2012, workers employed 40 or more hours per week experienced a 3 percent reduction in the likelihood of having coverage from their own job, while those employed 30–39 hours per week experienced a 12 percent decline (those employed fewer than 30 hours per week experienced a 20 percent decline).

Among workers employed 30–39 hours per week, both those who worked for a large employer and those who worked for a small employer experienced a 9 percent decline in coverage between 2008 and 2012.

The data confirm that the recent recession resulted in an increased use of part-time workers, but since 2010 the percentage of workers employed less than 40 hours per week has declined slightly. The data also indicate that while both full-time and part-time workers have experienced drops in health coverage, part-time workers have been affected disproportionately.

The question, of course, is whether PPACA’s full-time worker definition will accelerate – or ameliorate – those trends.

  • Notes

“Trends in Health Coverage for Part-Time Workers, 1999–2012” is published in the May EBRI Notes at http://www.ebri.org/pdf/notespdf/EBRI_Notes_05_May-14_PrtTime-Rollovers.pdf

 

“Crisis” Management

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

“Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s perhaps the most famous quote from one of my favorite movies—the 1995 “Apollo 13,” the story of the ill-fated moon landing mission of the same name. As the third such undertaking, it was a mission that the nation largely ignored—until that mission ran into trouble. Trouble in this case meant having an oxygen tank explode two days into their trip to the moon, which led to a reduction in power, loss of heat in the cabin, a shortage of drinkable water, and ultimately the need to jury-rig the system that removed carbon dioxide from the cabin. Arguably, Apollo 13 didn’t have a “problem”; they had a crisis, and one that threatened their very lives.

While we’re a few years removed from the financial crisis that led to the so-called Great Recession, “crisis” is a word much bandied about these days. Crisis is, after all, one of those descriptors that cry out for swift and decisive action—and the industry of employee benefits has its fair share. Thus, whether it’s the looming retirement crisis some see (or see for some) on the horizon, the crippling impact of college debt on the finances (and future financial security) of younger Americans, or the health care crisis that the ACA was designed to forestall (or that some say is destined to create), we are all challenged and confronted—by those at nearly every point along the political spectrum—with the urgency of the need to address the “crisis.”

But do these circumstances constitute a “crisis”? A review of the dictionary definition of crisis reveals the following perspectives: “A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point”; an “unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change”; a “sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.”

On May 15, the Employee Benefit Research Institute will host its 74th Policy Forum, titled “‘Crisis’ Management: Uncertainty and the Workplace.” We’ll examine the current and projected future state of retirement readiness, employment-based health care, and the role that approaches such as financial wellness can play in alleviating the strains of uncertainty.

It promises to be an interesting and insightful discussion—one that you can expect to learn from and profit by participating, whether you’re looking for ideas to help stave off a systemic crisis, to better understand the current and future environment of employment-based benefits and the policies that could have an influence, or for ways to improve the current system(s).

It may or may not be a crisis—but these are topics whose resolution could well affect all our lives.

Reserve your place today at http://www.ebri.org/register/.
– Notes 

[1] Iconic as it might be, the movie’s most famous quote, “Houston, we have a problem”, wasn’t an accurate quote. According to NASA audio files, Astronaut Jack Swigert first said, “OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Mission Control said, “This is Houston. Say again, please.” Then Jim Lovell said, “Ahh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Because “we’ve had” implies the problem has passed, movie director Ron Howard chose to use “we have”.    

“Reference” Points

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

We started setting money aside for our children’s college education relatively early, but as they began actually considering their options, it was clear that our savings wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense at some of the schools on their lists. Moreover, while all three wouldn’t all be in college at the same time, there was enough overlap to make it “complicated.”

While we didn’t want to limit our kids’ college choices, we had certain real world constraints—and so we told them how much we could contribute to their college expenses, and that they were free to make up the difference between that figure and the actual expense of the college they chose through their own work, scholarships, and/or debt. As a practical matter, defining our “contribution” may have taken some options off their lists, but, certainly in hindsight, it seemed to give them focus and some real-world context—a reference point—for one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.      

Employers have been interested in and have tried to implement the “defined contribution” concept for health benefits in a number of different ways. The Revenue Act of 1978 started it with Sec. 125 and flexible spending accounts and “cafeteria plans.” A recent EBRI Issue Brief outlines some of the more recent history, the introduction of health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2001, health savings accounts (HSA) in 2004, and the more recent trend toward private health insurance exchanges, where employers provide a fixed amount of money for workers to use toward the cost of health coverage.

However, the primary focus of the report is another defined contribution approach called reference pricing (RP), under which plan sponsors either pay a fixed amount or limit their contributions toward the cost of a specific health care service. If a plan member chooses a health care provider or service that costs more, he or she must pay the difference in price. Reference pricing is receiving more attention and consideration today because of growing plan sponsor interest in managing health care costs, but the approach is still relatively new; in 2012, 11 percent of employers with 500 or more workers were using some type of RP, and another 16 percent were considering it.

How might such an approach impact cost? EBRI’s analysis indicates that the potential aggregate savings could reach $9.4 billion if all employers adopted reference pricing for the health care services examined in the paper, some 1.6 percent of all spending on health care services among the 156 million people under age 65 with employment-based health benefits in 2010.

As the report notes, savings from reference pricing materializes through the combination of 1) patients choosing providers at the reference price, 2) patients paying the difference between the reference price and the allowed charge through cost sharing, and 3) providers reducing their prices to the reference price. Obviously, any increase in prices among providers below the reference price would reduce the potential for savings.

From an employer perspective, the approach establishes a cost threshold for the service(s) selected, but as the EBRI analysis notes, plan sponsors should obviously consider a number of issues as they weigh adopting reference pricing, including how the reference price is determined and how providers may react. Communication to plan members is also key to effective use of reference pricing.

For plan members, it could represent the potential for expanded choice with some pricing context—but, as with my kids’ college selection process, they’ll likely need more data on prices and quality in order to make truly informed decisions.

Notes

The full report is published in the April EBRI Issue Brief, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits” available online here.

Bargain Based?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

My father had many admirable personality traits, but he also had his quirks. He was buying in bulk at warehouse stores well before it was “cool” to do so (and before many of the current generation of such stores existed), and he was an earlier adopter of generic food brands. And, yes, sometimes he bought generic food and paper stocks in bulk. While the quality of such offerings has doubtless improved dramatically over the years, I still shudder at the memory of my first sip of generic cola.

My childhood encounters with generic products notwithstanding, I’ve generally not been as particular about generic drugs. Oh, sure, when you have a migraine, there’s still something to be said for the confidence (if not reality) in reaching for the name brand pain reliever. But when it comes to prescription drugs, if there’s a cheaper, generic alternative, I’m generally amenable to the switch.

A greater sensitivity to cost is, in fact, one of the aspects of consumer-directed health plans (CDHP) touted by proponents, who contend that providing participants with an account and subjecting their health insurance claims to high deductibles will induce enrollees who would likely be spending more of their own money (than might be the case with traditional health coverage) to make more cost- and quality-conscious health care decisions. On the other hand, CDHP skeptics caution that these individuals lack the kind of information they need to make good decisions—and, worse, might make cost-centric choices that aren’t the best health care choices, and might even prove to be less cost-efficient (and even more expensive) over the longer term.

Using data from a large employer that implemented a CDHP, fully replacing traditional managed-care health insurance with a health savings account (HSA), new research[i], conducted through the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation (EBRI CRHBI)[ii], found that moving to the HSA-eligible plan reduced the number of brand name prescriptions filled. However, it also found that the move reduced the number of generic prescriptions filled. Previous EBRI research showed that while prescription drug use went down, it also resulted in decreased use of maintenance medications for chronic disease and a worsening of adherence.

As the EBRI report explains, while reductions in prescription-drug utilization can result in pharmacy expenditure savings for employer plan sponsors, increases in downstream medical costs may eclipse those benefits. In view of the potential for these kinds of unintended offsets, it notes that CDHPs and other plan designs that raise patient cost-sharing for prescription drugs might want to consider some alternative strategies that can bolster adherence and mitigate the potential impact.

Sometimes less is more – but only after you take into account all the costs. And sometimes you find that “less” is no bargain.

  • Notes

[i] “Brand-Name and Generic Prescription Drug Use After Adoption of a Full-Replacement, Consumer-Directed Health Plan With a Health Savings Account” was published in the March EBRI Notes, available online here.

[ii] The following organizations provide the funding for EBRI CRHBI: American Express, Ameriprise, Aon Hewitt, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Boeing, Deseret Mutual, Federal Reserve Employee Benefits System, General Mills, Healthways, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Mercer, and Pfizer.