Employers not changing health benefits, despite economy

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Despite rising costs, very few employers changed their health benefit packages during the 2009 enrollment season.

Employers absorbed most of the cost increases, and added access to health saving accounts and wellness programs.

That’s according to the Wells Fargo Benefits Marketplace Survey, which includes responses from more than 400 U.S. employers. The survey shows that consumer-directed health plans continue to grow, with more than 8 million members total.

“We certainly didn’t expect these results at the same time as rising employer costs and tight budgets,” said Dan Gowen, senior vice president for Wells Fargo Insurance Services. “Despite the inflationary adjustments imposed by the insurance companies, the majority of employers absorbed the impact this past year without changes to plan design or increases to the employee contribution percentages.”

Most respondents did not make changes to the basic components of their plans — 82 percent remained with their current medical carrier. Additionally more than 60 percent made no change to their medical plan design, and more than 75 percent made no revisions to their prescription plan.

In the survey, no employer eliminated medical benefits, and 72 percent did not ask employees to pay a larger percentage of total costs.

Other finding showed that employers favored wellness programs — smoking cessation and biometric screening were the most popular programs added this past year. Tying participation in a wellness program to financial incentives also proved popular. Of the employers that added a wellness program for 2009, 51 percent offered an incentive to participate.

“If the recession continues and future layoffs are imminent, we expect our customers to strongly consider adding programs for smoking, stress and weight management,” Gowen said.

Disease managements programs also are offered, with diabetes and asthma being the most common.

As employers look to trim their benefit budgets, voluntary benefit plans are gaining in popularity. Of those employers that offered at least one new voluntary program, 48 percent offered two or more. The most common combination among these products is accident, cancer and critical illness benefits, with 25 percent of employers adding them.

Safety net center

The Colorado Health Institute has launched the Center for the Study of the Safety Net to focus on policy issues related to the fiscal viability, sustainability and capacity of Colorado’s health care safety net providers and the characteristics of the people they serve.

The center will bring together the current analytical work about vulnerable populations and the network of physical, mental and oral health care providers throughout Colorado. The center also will focus its information strategies to support options that are based on the research of the state’s safety net providers.

The center will be headed by Jeff Bontrager, senior research analyst, who will serve as program manager. He will oversee the data collection and analysis, including public health insurance coverage, estimating the size and characteristics of Colorado’s uninsured populations, issues related to physical, mental and oral health care access by vulnerable populations, and monitoring the capacity of the current safety net work force.

Work on the center began four years ago with a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to establish a Safety Net Indicators and Monitoring System.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that consistent data have been collected from across the various types of safety net providers in Colorado,” Bontrager said. “Understanding the safety net is particularly important in this time of economic downturn when more people may be turning to the safety net to meet their basic health care needs.”

Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.