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 pg.18). 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:
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 BenefitsPRO.com 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.
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.