“Keep” Sakes

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

Ask any benefits manager why their organization offers benefits to their workers, and my experience suggests that the reliably consistent answer is “to attract and retain the best workers.”

Indeed, as the 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey (WBS)¹ bears out, the benefits package that an employer offers prospective employees is an important factor in their decision to accept or reject a job. In fact, a full third of employees say the benefits package is extremely important, and another 45 percent say it is very important. Moreover, a quarter of employees report they have accepted, quit, or changed jobs because of the benefits—other than salary or wage level—that an employer offered or failed to offer.²

However, the WBS also found that many workers are not especially satisfied with the benefits package offered by their employer: 31 percent are only somewhat satisfied, and one-quarter are not too satisfied (12 percent) or not at all satisfied (14 percent).

It is, of course, entirely possible that these workers are genuinely dissatisfied with the options provided by their employer. On the other hand, the WBS found that a substantial minority of employees may be confused about the benefits their employer offers and who pays for them—a level of ignorance that belies the time and expense often undertaken by employers in making those offerings available.

Employers increasingly look not only to attracting and retaining a qualified workforce, but (at an appropriate time and place), to helping an aging workforce migrate into retirement—a process that can be assisted by a well-crafted benefit program. And it’s not surprising that workers see value in offering additional voluntary benefits to those nearing retirement age.

In fact, the WBS finds that large majorities of workers say they think the following products and services would be extremely or very valuable to workers nearing retirement age:

  • An annuity product that makes guaranteed monthly lifetime payments (83 percent).
  • Life insurance that pays benefits to the surviving spouse, helping to replace income from Social Security or other sources that is discontinued when a worker dies (77 percent).
  • Retirement planning that includes assistance with deciding when to retire, when to claim Social Security benefits, what Medicare option to choose, and how to set up a stream of income for retirement (76 percent).
  • Long-term care insurance (71 percent).

During my working life, there have been times when I didn’t care much about certain aspects of the benefits package. As a young, single individual, I focused primarily on salary and vacation—cared less about health care insurance than I should have, while retirement benefits, even for someone who worked with them every day, were distant prospects. As my family grew, my priorities (and those that I assigned to various benefits) shifted. It was still presented as a package, of course, but the various components mattered more or less depending on my personal situation.

Ultimately, employers looking to keep the best workers committed and engaged know that benefits, like workers, have a life cycle, and that programs designed to keep the best workers are not only well-designed for those various life stages, but (as the WBS reinforces) are well-communicated and reinforced throughout a worker’s career.

Notes

¹ The 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey (WBS) was conducted by EBRI and Greenwald & Associates. Additional information can be found online here.  If you’d like to become an underwriter of this important survey, please contact Nevin Adams at nadams@ebri.org, or Paul Fronstin at fronstin@ebri.org

² “Views on the Value of Voluntary Workplace Benefits: Findings from the 2013 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey,”, can be found in the November 2013 EBRI Notes article online here.

System Upgrades?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

I recently upgraded the operating system on my iPhone. Not that that would normally be a big deal—I generally try to keep such things current, despite the occasional “bumps” that inevitably come with software upgrades. But this time the upgrade wasn’t just about improving performance and fixing issues that had been identified since the last update.  No, this one not only LOOKED different, some core functions were said to work differently—and “different” in this case appeared to be a problem for a number of users.

So, before I took the “plunge,” I spent some time trying to do some research—trying to find out what kinds of improvements I could anticipate, and to better understand the complaints associated with an upgrade from which there was, apparently, no “return.” The upgrades were readily quantified (on the vendor’s website most notably), although I think it’s fair to say they had a motivation in promoting the new system. However, most seemed to be relatively unimportant in terms of how I used, or planned to use, my device. As for the problems: Well, they were equally easy to find, but harder to quantify. And, like those product ratings on any website, were from people I did not know and whose judgments I had no particular reason to trust.

Consequently, stuck between conflicting perspectives, and seeing no particular advantage in making a change, I did what most human beings do. Nothing. Until, with my current contract expiring, I realized that the upgrade was likely to be imposed on me at that point, regardless of my preferences.

On October 1, the public marketplaces (formerly known as connectors or exchanges) associated with the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) will begin to come online—in various phases and, from what one can discern from published reports and official updates, in various states of readiness. The advantages have been outlined, as have the potential pitfalls. Doubtless the experiences will be as varied as the experience(s) and expectation(s) of the individuals involved.

However, it’s hardly a new idea. Back in 1980 the conservative Heritage Foundation began advocating that the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP—a marketplace for multiple insurers and scores of plan options) become a model for expansion of health coverage through an individual mandate. Today, simply telling those in Washington, DC, that “the marketplaces are just a version of FEHBP” brings an immediate understanding of the concept.

A year ago, EBRI published an Issue Brief that outlined the issues related to private health insurance exchanges, possible structures of an exchange, funding, as well as the pros, cons, and uncertainties to employers of adopting them. That report contained a summary of recent surveys on employer attitudes, as well as some changes that employers have made to other benefits that might serve as historical precedents for a move to some type of defined contribution health benefits approach. It is a report that provides both current analysis alongside a historical perspective—a resource for those looking to better understand and plan for the potential changes ahead.¹

That said, when Paul Fronstin, EBRI’s director of Health Research and the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation, updates the information in the future, he may well call them marketplaces, unless the name “upgrades” again in the weeks ahead!

Notes

¹ See “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online here.

You can find a catalogue of recent EBRI research on PPACA and its potential impact on employment-based health benefits online here.

Interest in Private Health Insurance Exchanges, “Defined Contribution” Health Plans Likely to Gain Ground Post-PPACA

Federal health care reform legislation and the desire of employers to limit their health insurance costs are likely to fuel interest in so-called “defined contribution” health benefits and private health insurance exchanges, according to a new report by EBRI.

The EBRI report says the combination of insurance market reforms, especially the health exchange structure in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA), as well as rising health costs, have brought a renewed focus on limiting employer’s health care cost exposure.

Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report, said the vehicle that some employers are interested in using for providing coverage is a private health insurance exchange. Through these exchanges, in tandem with a defined contribution (DC) funding approach, employers can accelerate the drive toward a more mass- consumer-driven insurance market and gain more control over their health care contribution costs, capping their contributions, and shifting to workers the authority to control the terms (and to some extent, the costs) of their own health insurance.

“Ultimately, whether and how the movement to private health insurance exchanges and DC health plans will occur is still subject to various influences and remains highly uncertain,” Fronstin said. “But the enactment of PPACA and employers’ interest in reducing the risk of their health benefit costs indicate this is a field that is likely to grow.”

EBRI notes that employers have long been interested in the concept of DC health benefits, but never moved in that direction for a number of reasons, both because they were hesitant to drop group coverage in favor of individual policies, and because they were concerned that many employees would not be able to secure coverage in the individual market. Recently, however, the combination of insurance market reforms and the embodiment of the exchange structure in PPACA has brought a renewed focus on an approach that limits employers’ health care cost exposure by providing fixed-dollar contributions that workers could use to purchase individual policies.

The full report is published in the July EBRI Issue Brief, “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online at www.ebri.org

The Employee Benefit Research Institute is a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute based in Washington, DC, that focuses on health, savings, retirement, and economic security issues. EBRI does not lobby and does not take policy positions. The work of EBRI is made possible by funding from its members and sponsors, which includes a broad range of public, private, for-profit and nonprofit organizations. For more information go to www.ebri.org or www.asec.org

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Decision Decisions

By Paul Fronstin, EBRI

ImageMost employers find that while they would like to continue providing health benefits to employees and their dependents, longer-term cost trends are unsustainable.  Those trends, combined with the forthcoming decision by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) (in whole or in part – notably the individual mandate), and uncertainty related to the future of health care delivery and financing in the United States are causing many employers to start to rethink their role as a provider of health coverage in the workplace.

While there is a possibility that the entire law could be declared unconstitutional, most of the controversy surrounding the PPACA has involved the law’s requirement that individuals either purchase insurance or pay a penalty, the so-called “individual mandate.”  There are basically four ways1 in which SCOTUS might rule on the constitutionality of this provision in the PPACA:

  1. Rule that the individual mandate is constitutional and let implementation of the law proceed;
  2. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but that the individual mandate is severable and therefore implementation is allowed to proceed with all other parts of the PPACA;
  3. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but severable from the remainder of the law, but discards other connected parts of the PPACA, such as guaranteed issue and community rating;
  4. Rule that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that the individual mandate is not severable from the PPACA, therefore the entire PPACA is found to be unconstitutional.

As of this writing, only the justices know the decision, but speculation (and odds making) is occurring on a daily basis.  It is unlikely that the court would strike down the individual mandate and discard other connected parts (option 3 above), because it does not have the equivalent of “line-item” veto power of laws passed by Congress.  If the ruling finds the mandate severable from the rest of the law (option 2 above), Congress will inevitably try to fix the PPACA, but it is impossible to predict what the fix may look like given the current political climate and the potential for political gridlock regardless of the outcome of the next election.  If the court rules that the law is unconstitutional (or that the individual mandate is, and is inseparable from the rest of the law, necessitating its rejection), the status quo of the past will return, but with a potential nightmare scenario where the parts of the PPACA that have already been implemented would need to be  “unimplemented” (such as funding provided to the states to establish exchanges, or the deductibility of health care coverage offered to the newly created category of adult dependents under the PPACA that would ostensibly now be subject to taxation), potentially triggering numerous lawsuits and additional political ill will.

While health care reform discussions that ultimately led to the passage of the PPACA started out as discussions regarding system reform that would result in lower health care costs, they quickly morphed into discussions about coverage that largely ignored the overall cost of health care services and health insurance coverage.  Thus, regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court decision, or the fall elections, health care costs are expected to continue to increase in the future.

What Will Employers Do?

If employers go down the current road they are on and stay with the status quo, we will likely continue to see cost-shifting to workers and the introduction of and experimentation with carrots and sticks in order to change the health behaviors of workers and their dependents.

However, were employers to decide to move away from traditional employment-based health coverage, there are a number of alternative approaches they might consider:

1) De-link health coverage from work.  Employers might endorse a system where they have absolutely no connection to health coverage.  Some have proposed a single-payer system, and others have proposed a purely individual market; there are precedents for both.  Medicare began as the equivalent of a single-payer system for health coverage for seniors but has since evolved into a hybrid public-private partnership, as private plans are an alternative for Medicare beneficiaries.  The private-plan part of Medicare could be expanded to move away from the predominant single-payer-system aspect of Medicare to one that looks more like an individual market (such as that contemplated in the proposal put forth by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)). Under a single-payer system alternative to the current employment-based system, employers would no longer provide coverage.  Instead, either the federal government or the states would provide coverage, with financing provided through some type of tax.  Alternatively, a purely individual market might look very much like the exchanges contained in the PPACA, with subsidies for low-income workers, or a voucher-type system (also as proposed by Congressman Ryan for Medicare).  Financing for either would come from some type of tax system as well.

2)  Re-define the link between health coverage and work.  Employers have been interested in the concept of “defined contribution” for years as a way to provide health coverage to workers.  While there is no one way in which to define such a concept, presumably it would work in a way in which employers are able to better control or “define” their contribution towards health coverage.  Under that scenario, public exchanges as described in the PPACA could be the vehicle through which workers would get their coverage, with employers either paying some kind of coverage charge (such as the $2,000 penalty included in the PPACA), or the employer may itself seek to make coverage arrangements through third-party private exchanges. Such a system may or may not produce short-term cost savings to employers, depending on individual specifics of how employers transition to such a system, but could provide long-term savings if employer contributions do not rise as fast as premiums would otherwise have grown, or if premium growth is flat (due to the more market-driven system). In such a system, employers would no longer be involved in decisions regarding the design of health care.  Rather, they would simply provide the funding mechanism for workers to purchase health coverage through a party separate from the employer.  Employers have shown interest in this concept in the past through position papers published by the CED  and the ERISA Industry Committee as recently as 2007.  Moving towards these private exchanges would not require a change in law, regardless of the SCOTUS decision, and would be permitted under current law unless prohibited by a future Congress.

After three+-plus years of contentious debate and the challenges associated with understanding and attempting to comply with the new law, it seems that employers are at a crossroads: try to continue with the current employment-based system of health coverage, or undertake to try to fundamentally redefine the system that the United States has essentially lived with since World War II.

It is unlikely that employers will simply take the fork when they come to it in the road.

Notes:

1. There is, of course, also the possibility that SCOTUS will remand the issue of severability back to the lower court, tying up the PPACA in court for a longer period of time, creating more uncertainty, but basically leaving things in play for the time being.

More Part-time Workers Lack Health Coverage

In the wake of the economic recession, the number of part-time workers who lack health insurance is increasing, according to new research from EBRI.

Full-time workers are far more likely than part-time workers to be offered a health insurance benefit from their employers, which in turn affects how many are actually enrolled. In 2010, 60.1 percent of full-time workers had coverage from their own job, while 16.8 percent of part-time workers had such coverage.

Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report, said the data provide an important baseline to measure changes once a key provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) takes effect in 2014. The law will require that employers with 50 or more full-time workers failing to provide health coverage to full-time workers in 2014 will be required to pay a penalty. While many employers already offer health coverage, there are other provisions of PPACA that are expected to increase the cost of coverage.

“Because of PPACA, there is concern that employers may respond by cutting back on health coverage for part-time workers or by increasing the proportion of part-time workers employed,” Fronstin said. “Since the recession, we have seen the share of part-time workers going up and at the same time there has been a slight drop in part-time workers with coverage from their own employer.”

The EBRI report notes that penalties for failing to provide health coverage under PPACA will apply only to employers with 50 or more full-time workers. But most of these employers already offer coverage: In 2011, 93 percent of employers with 50‒199 workers offered coverage and 99 percent of employers with 200 or more workers offered it.

The full EBRI report is published in the March EBRI Notes, “Trends in Health Coverage for Part-Time Workers,” online here.

EBRI’s Health Savings Account Data in NYTimes

The Feb. 1 New York Times’ “Makng the Most of Your Money” column (“Bucks”) featured results from the January EBRI Issue Brief on health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

New York Times, Feb. 1, 2011

The article notes:

“According to the results, there is some evidence that consumers with the accounts are more likely to engage in certain cost-conscious behaviors than those without the accounts. Specifically, those with the accounts appear more likely to check whether the plan would cover care, more likely to ask for a generic drug, more likely to have a budget and more likely to check the price of service.

“On the other hand, the researchers also found that there are certain cost-conscious behaviors that those with the accounts don’t appear any more likely to engage in than those without the accounts. These included talking to a doctor about prescriptions and costs, asking a doctor to recommend a less costly drug and checking the quality rating of a hospital or doctor.”

The full Times article is online here.

The full EBRI report is online here.

Employer and Worker Reactions to Health Care Reform

The January 2011 EBRI Notes  examines how employers might respond to health reform and employees’ expectations of changes to health coverage.

January 2011 EBRI Notes

As the Notes article details, both employers and workers say they are not very knowledgeable about health reform, but that employers say they are likely to pass along any health benefit cost increases to workers—and, mostly, workers are expecting such cost increases.

The findings are from the 2010 EBRI/MGA Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey and the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 SHRM Organizations’ Response to Health Care Reform Poll.

Concerning the future of coverage, employers are evenly split as to whether they will change health coverage as a result of health reform while workers are split between thinking their benefits will remain the same or erode.  While few workers expect employers to drop coverage after 2014, and very few employers plan to drop coverage, employers are evenly split between having decided to continue to offer coverage and being undecided about the future of employment-based health coverage.

The full report is online here.  The press release is online here.