Whether an employee fully understands or takes advantage ofhealth benefits available to them depends to a significant degreeupon their income.

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That’s the recurring theme of a report prepared by Aflac. Its2015 WorkForces study gathered information from nearly 2,000professionals in benefits-related positions at U.S. companies. As ascreen, Aflac considered responses about the tendencies ofemployees who had a household income of $100,000 or more, comparingthem to responses from those with a household income of $50,000 orless.

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“Although the Affordable Care Act has provided more Americanswith access to major medical insurance, there are still majordisparities between higher- and lower-income households in terms offinancial preparedness, knowledge about health insurance andbenefits enrollment,” the study said. “Not only are thoselower-income households less likely to have financial plans inplace, they’re also less likely to have funds available to coverunexpected medial costs.”

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Those with a lower income feared being badly damaged financiallyby unexpected medical costs, and felt they didn’t really have afinancial plan, mainly because theysimply didn’t have sufficient savings. The study found that:

  • 78 percent of lower-income households have lessthan $1,000 for out-of-pocket costs associated with an unexpectedserious illness or accident if it occurred today, compared to19 percent of higher-income households

  • 74 percent of higher-income households have afinancial plan in place, compared with 38 percent oflower-income households

But even aside from financial planning and resources, which onewould expect would be a challenge for those with less money, thosewith lower incomes also struggled with making choices aboutworkplace benefits.

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For instance, those with a lower income were far less likely toparticipate in an employer’s major medical, life and disabilityinsurance programs, and fewer opted for a 401(K).

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They were less likely to feel that they had enough informationabout benefits at open enrollment time, they weren’t as satisfiedas those with a higher income with the insurance claim process, andthey tended to be less satisfied with their medical appointments aswell.

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The survey also revealed specific health care trends regardingmillennials, boomers and wellness programs. Highlights includethese facts:

  • Despite millennials’ confidence about their financial future,more than half at least somewhat agree that medical bills havehindered their ability to save;

  • Boomers are also most likely to report feeling a financialimpact from consumer-driven health care, adding further uncertaintyto their retirement considerations;

  • Even though 63 percent of employees participate in theircompany’s wellness program almost the same amount are pessimisticabout the influence their companies’ programs have on theirhealth.

“While health literacy and financial preparedness is low among amajority of Americans, socioeconomic gaps are emerging:Higher-income households, or those earning $100,000 per year ormore, are more likely to understand and take advantage of theirhealth care benefits than lower-income households, or those earningless than $50,000 per year,” the study said. “Why is thisdifference in health care literacy and enrollment a concern?Because lower income households are significantly less prepared tocope with financial fallout stemming from illnesses and injuries.These are the households that most need to comprehend and takeadvantage of the health care benefits available to their families,because many are just one serious medical incident away fromeconomic ruin.”

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The full study can be downloaded at the Aflac Workforces Report site.

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.