Student Loan Solutions

studentloansWith student loan debt topping the list of concerns for so many young workers, more and more employers are looking for ways to help. While several large employers are doing things to help them reduce principal and save on interest, one large employer is allowing employees to trade up to 5 vacation days for a payment on their debt. In their program, a person earning $50,000 annually could receive a principal payment of nearly $1,000. The Society of Human Resource Management reports that 4% of employers are offering a student loan repayment benefit of some kind.


More Time Off

dg-workersFor the first time in years, Americans took more time off from work in 2017. A survey of 4,400 workers conducted by the travel industry showed that on average, 17.2 days of vacation were used last year. This was more than a full day greater than in 2014. While more vacation time was enjoyed, work pressures still kept more than half of those surveyed from using all their earned vacation days in 2017.


2017 Employer Health Benefits Survey

This article appeared on Kaiser Family Foundation on September 19, 2017.

Employer-sponsored insurance covers over half of the nonelderly population; approximately 151 million non-elderly people in total.1 To provide current information about employer-sponsored health benefits, the Kaiser Family Foundation (Kaiser) and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) conduct an annual survey of private and nonfederal public employers with three or more workers. This is the nineteenth Kaiser/HRET survey and reflects employer-sponsored health benefits in 2017.


In 2017, the average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are $6,690 for single coverage and $18,764 for family coverage [Figure A]. The average single premium increased 4% and the average family premium increased 3% in 2017. Workers’ wages increased 2.3% and inflation increased 2.2% over the last year.2 The average premium for family coverage is lower for covered workers in small firms (3-199 workers) than for workers in large firms (200 or more workers) ($17,615 vs. $19,235).

Premiums for family coverage have increased 19% since 2012 and 55% since 2007. Average premiums for high-deductible health plans with a savings option (HDHP/SOs) are considerably lower than the overall average for all plan types for both single and family coverage, at $6,024 and $17,581, respectively [Figure A]. These premiums do not include any firm contributions to workers’ health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements.

Premiums vary significantly around the averages for both single and family coverage, reflecting differences in health care costs and compensation decisions across regions and industries. Seventeen percent of covered workers are in plans with an annual total premium for family coverage of at least $22,517 (120% or more of the average family premium), and 21% of covered workers are in plans where the family premium is less than $15,011 (less than 80% of the average family premium).

Most covered workers make a contribution toward the cost of the premium for their coverage. On average, covered workers contribute 18% of the premium for single coverage and 31% of the premium for family coverage. Workers in small firms contribute a higher average percentage of the premium for family coverage than workers in large firms (39% vs. 28%).

Covered workers in firms with a relatively high percentage of lower-wage workers (at least 35% of workers earn $24,000 a year or less) contribute higher percentages of the premium for single (23%) and family (37%) coverage than workers in firms with a smaller share of lower-wage workers (18% and 31%, respectively).3

As with total premiums, the share of the premium contributed by workers varies considerably. For single coverage, 14% of covered workers are in plans that do not require them to make a contribution, 60% are in plans that require a contribution of 25% or less of the total premium, and 2% are in plans that require a contribution of more than half of the premium. For family coverage, 3% of covered workers are in plans that do not require them to make a contribution, 44% are in a plan that requires a contribution of 25% or less of the total premium, and 16% are in plans that require more than half of the premium. Covered workers in small firms are more likely than covered workers in large firms to be in a plan that requires the worker to contribute more than 50% of the total family premium (36% vs. 8%).

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What are your clients’ most-pressing issues?

The article below was published on October 17, 2017 by BenefitsPRO, written by Alan Goforth.

Benefits professionals have been on a roller-coaster ride since the 2016 presidential election. That ride includes the highs of lofty rhetoric, the lows of as-yet unfulfilled promises, and uncertainty about what may lie around the next curve.

Every now and then, it helps to step off the ride, catch your breath and collect your thoughts. That’s why BenefitsPRO takes time each year to ask employers to share their insights on the most important issues they face. Their responses provide a valuable roadmap for brokers as they plan ahead for this fall’s abbreviated open enrollment period.

Not surprisingly, the economy is top of mind for the 125 decision-makers who participated this year (see box on last slide). Overall, employers give the Trump administration low marks for its economic policies. Thirty-seven percent said these policies have had a moderately or extremely negative effect on their business outlook, with 20 percent reporting a moderately or extremely positive impact.

Perhaps the most important takeaway message for brokers is that most employers adjust their benefits spending to economic conditions. Sixty-four percent said their benefits spending is influenced by the economy.

Coping with costs

The rising cost of health care benefits tops the list of concerns, with most citing increased expenses over the previous year:



However, there is good news for brokers among the economic concerns. The overwhelming majority of employers (85 percent) use a benefits broker or agent. Compensation is divided somewhat evenly between commission-based (54 percent) and fee-based (46 percent). Seventy percent of employers said their broker either conducts enrollment or helps them conduct it.

The even better news is that more than 91 percent of respondents have no thoughts of dropping their broker and going it alone. Still, it would be smart to pay attention to the factors that they say would cause them to consider such a bold move:


Communication is critical

Timely, actionable communication is more important than ever in today’s fast-changing benefits environment. Nine employers in 10 said they are satisfied with the frequency of communication with their broker. How often do they connect?


One potential topic of conversation is the new Department of Labor fiduciary rule and its potential impact. Eighty-three percent of employers said they understand it extremely or moderately well, and the rest said not very well or not at all.

Although many conversations take place about benefits products, technology is an increasingly hot topic. Thirty-six percent of employers consult with their broker multiple times each year about such topics as enrollment, administration and compliance platforms. Another 25 percent do so once a month or more frequently. More than 80 percent of employers are satisfied with the frequency of technology communications with their broker.

Speaking of technology, nearly every employer said it is essential to his or her business:


Employers seek out a variety of print and online sources for information about health-care reform, led by electronic newsletters from an insurance magazine (66 percent). Not to blow our own horn, but is the most popular information site, mentioned by 81 percent of employers.

Expanded product offerings

Although many employers are expanding the menu of voluntary benefits, health insurance (including HMOs and PPOs) remains the overwhelming favorite. Eighty percent said their employees consider health insurance their most important benefit. Sixteen percent cited consumer-driven health care options, such as HSAs and HRAs. A majority—60 percent—now offer health savings accounts. About half of employers surveyed said they are used by between 1 percent and 25 percent of their employees.

Not many employers are open to the idea of health insurance exchanges. Forty-four percent have consulted with their broker about an exchange. However, only 13 percent have considered moving their employees onto a public exchange, while 21 percent have considered a private exchange option.


Positive outlook

The bottom line for this year’s survey is that the vast majority of employers look to their broker as a valued business partner. Brokers who listen to what they have to say, communicate clearly, and deliver practical solutions will be well positioned to build strong relationships during enrollment and look forward to a mutually prosperous 2018.

Meet the respondents

The 125 survey respondents represent a broad cross-section of the benefits industry (although not every participant answered every question). Three-fourths of them are involved in making benefits decisions for their company.


BenefitsPRO takes time each year to ask employers to share their insights on the most important issues they face. Their responses provide a valuable roadmap for brokers as they plan ahead for this fall’s abbreviated open enrollment period.


10 compliance issues for 2018 health and benefit planning

The article below was published on June 18, 2017 by Employee Benefit News, written by Brian M. Kalish.


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Despite the uncertain future of the Affordable Care Act and pending replacement legislation, clients should continue finalizing their 2018 health and benefit offerings, contribution strategies, vendor terms, plan operations and employee communications, according to Mercer. The company hosted a recent webinar to share the top 10 issues for 2018.

“As employers begin to strategize for their 2018 benefit programs, it is important not to lose sight of new and ongoing compliance obligations and prepare to make any changes that may be necessary in employee benefit plan design and administration,” says Katharine Marshall, principal at Mercer. “Despite what may – or may not – come of ACA repeal and replace legislation, there are a number of compliance concerns that employers can count on sticking around – like HIPAA privacy and security requirements, mental health parity requirements and ERISA fiduciary duties, just to name a few.”

Employers and their advisers, Marshall adds, should keep these issues in focus because the consequences of sidelining them can be costly.

Employed shared responsibility strategy and reporting
Even with plans to dramatically alter or eliminate the Affordable Care Act pending in Congress, most of the legislative body’s reconciliation rules do not allow for the repeal of the employer shared responsibility, says Katharine Marshall, principal at Mercer.

While the minimum value requirement remains unchanged for 2018, affordability has decreased and an employer cannot charge a full time employee more than 9.56% of household income, down slightly from 9.69% in 2017.

It is critical for employers to document their offers of coverage and “most importantly,” waivers of that coverage, Marshall says. “As you head to 2018, correct any mistakes in prior year filings,” she adds.

Cadillac Tax
Employers should review their risk of exposure for when the tax is scheduled to begin in 2020. Although the American Health Care Act as it stands now delays the implementation of the tax until 2026, the fate of that bill is uncertain, Marshall says.

The best way to do that is to review an employer’s risk of exposure by identifying plans and benefits that could be a factor, such as flexible spending accounts, health reimbursement arrangements and health savings accounts, she says. An employer should also focus on pre-65 retiree plans and high-cost plans due to geographic location and claims history.

Preventive services
For employers to comply with this requirement they need to stay abreast of updates to what must be covered.

Changes are made on a rolling basis. For Jan. 1, 2018, preventive services now include screening for depression in adults, low dose aspirin for certain at-risk adults ages 50-59, syphilis screening for asymptomatic non-pregnant adults, among others, Marshall says. Continue reading

How employers can step up benefits communications efforts

The below article is from Employee Benefit News, written by Andrew Brickman, on April 11, 2017.

I remember an old advertising line from a discount retailer that said, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” The discounter was promoting the idea that customers who understand the true cost and value of products are loyal and feel good about their purchase. The retailer used education to tear down the wall of misunderstanding and confusion that leads to buyer’s remorse.

Is there a wall between you and your workforce when it comes to your health and welfare benefits? Do they know the true cost and value of their benefits? Do they understand how their medical plan works? Do they comprehend terms like copay, co-insurance and deductible? Do they grasp the value of guaranteed issue for life insurance? Are they aware of the necessity of protections provided by disability insurance? Do they know how your 401(k) match works and why, at any age, it’s important to save for retirement? Do spouses make informed benefit and healthcare decisions?

No matter how good a job employers think they do when educating employees about their health and financial benefits, it usually isn’t enough. First, you’ve got to get their attention and keep it long enough for them to assimilate information, and the information is boring and often complicated. Misunderstanding, confusion and apathy all play a factor in why employees don’t understand or don’t seem to care about your efforts to provide them with access to healthcare and financial protection. Removing barriers can feel like an uphill climb in the middle of a blizzard, yet, it’s necessary.

HR and benefits departments spend an inordinate amount of time and resources designing health and welfare programs for employees. Benefit consultants have a front row seat to this effort. The energy and resources that are put into a renewal and a long-term benefits strategy can sap the attention from an equally important program component: creating and communicating a vibrant dialogue that educates employees about their plans.

How does a well-intentioned HR professional overcome employee misunderstanding, apathy and confusion over benefits? As President Ronald Reagan once said, “Tear down this wall!”

OK, that’s a little dramatic. But let’s examine how to overcome miscommunication and missed communications. Data plays a role. Reviewing claims, understanding workplace demographics, and analyzing utilization patterns are key in understanding if the messages you’re sending are resonating. Surveys and focus groups are good tools to uncover communication hits and misses.

A comprehensive employee education and communication campaign is a must. The campaign should be targeted and incorporate a variety of touchpoints. Think beyond the printed benefit guidebook to things like online access to summaries, on-demand webinars and social media. And don’t think that one message delivered prior to or during open enrollment is enough. Communications must continue — albeit in small snippets — over the course of the plan year.

Benefit communications require feedback from employees and a diligent review of key indicators. One way to judge the effectiveness is whether or not you see a long line of employees in the HR office. Or if your broker provides employee advocacy, you might learn that service representatives are receiving a high volume of calls on one or two topics. Or perhaps you see a spike in ER claims. Need to make an adjustment? A mid-course correction is not an admission of failure, but a necessary way to ensure that communications are hitting the target.

Technology is a great way to distribute and reinforce key messaging. Tailoring a benefits administration platform to communicate with employees as they are making their elections will help eliminate surprises down the road. It also gives you a channel to communicate with spouses, who can heavily influence the plans that employees end up choosing.

An older tool that is still relevant is the total compensation statement. These customized statements educate employees on the entire value of their benefits and salary. Benefits can comprise 30% to 40% of total compensation, therefore employers should willingly promote what they are paying for. If traditional total compensation statements aren’t a viable option due to cost or other factors, there are employee benefits administration platforms that have the ability to illustrate employer contributions.

In my line of work, I know how common it is for employees to be confused about benefits. They don’t enroll in the right plans. They use them improperly. They don’t understand the complete picture of what is offered and the value. Confusion builds a wall, but communications can tear it down.

Thinking back to the retailer who used education to woo and soothe his customers, consider that your benefits plan and knowledgeable employees can be your best recruitment and retention tool. An educated, engaged employee is your best employee.


Tell Congress to Oppose Eliminating or Capping the Employer Exclusion

NAHU is very concerned about current proposals in Congress that would undermine the employer-sponsored health insurance system by eliminating or placing a cap on the employer-tax exclusion for health insurance. Eliminating the exclusion would also eliminate most of the advantages of employer-sponsored insurance while capping it would degrade the benefit and serve as a tax increase for middle-class Americans.

The National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU) is calling for all employers and advisors to take action and fight Congress on their proposals. Employers, agents and brokers can click on the buttons below to access the full article on NAHU’s website. All are welcome to share their personal story on how this issue will impact you and your employees or your clients. We also encourage all to spread the message and take immediate action to help keep the employer exclusion tax benefit!