Predicting industry trends is as much a sign of the end of the year as after-Christmas sales and New Year’s resolutions.
Although predicting the future is only an educated guess, one thing is certain — voluntary benefits are here to stay.
Carriers, brokers, employers and workers all give a thumbs-up to the increased flexibility and opportunities for cost control they bring to benefits packages.
Here is what may lie over the horizon in 2017.
THE MARKET IS BULLISH
As a result, the quantity and quality of voluntary benefits will continue to grow. Examples of traditional voluntary benefits employers are likely to add include gap coverage, short-term disability, cancer, critical illness, prescription, dental, life insurance and hospital supplemental policies. Brokers should make sure they have these products in their portfolios.
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WELLNESS PROGRAMS GET FISCAL
Most businesses understand that the size of an employee’s waistline can correlate to attendance, productivity and turnover. Many also are starting to realize the link between the size of their bank account and job performance.
Smart employers are adding voluntary benefits that can help workers reduce stresses associated with finances and debt. These can include financial education, financial counseling, employee purchase programs, parental leave, retirement planning and even short-term loans under certain circumstances.
A-WEAR-NESS IS INCREASING
Technology is taking the guesswork out of employee wellness programs. Nearly two-thirds of carriers surveyed expect wearable technologies to have a significant impact on their industry, according to Accenture’s annual Technology Vision report. Fitbits and similar devices enable employees to quantify the results of their effort, which both inspires them and provides employers valuable feedback about the effectiveness of their programs. An increasing number of businesses now subsidize the cost of wearable devices or set up payroll deductions to cover the expense.
ENGAGEMENT GOES HIGH-TECH
Year-in and year-out, HR professionals cite employee engagement as one of their most vexing issues. Traditional tactics are becoming less effective with millennial employees, who often prefer voluntary benefit portals and enrollment platforms.
“Millennials get information on their own,” said Aprilyn Chavez Geissler, owner of Geissler Agency Inc. in Albuquerque. “However, when it’s time to purchase, they still want the personal service and an advisor to help them. As a large demographic, they are similar to the silent generation in that they think through their purchases and do research on their own.”
CRITICAL ILLNESS REACHING CRITICAL MASS
Critical illness insurance was once a blip on the radar screen of voluntary benefits packages — but not anymore. It is becoming an increasing popular option as the workforce ages and companies reduce primary health coverage and shift the cost of primary medical onto
“Critical illness insurance is by far the fastest-growing insurance product on the market,” said Mark Randall, a researcher for GoldenCare in Minneapolis. “Even though the market share is still fairly small, it’s a hot product. The bottom line is that every broker should add this product to their portfolio.”
VOLUNTARY BENEFITS REDEFINED
One sure sign of growing demand for voluntary benefits is the fact that many definitions have become obsolete. In the past, voluntary benefits were limited to such bread-and-butter options as dental or vision insurance. Today, however, they are all about lifestyle benefits, such as health club memberships, legal services or pet insurance. A good working definition of a voluntary benefit is anything that can be deducted from an employee’s paycheck.
CONSUMERS DRIVE PLANS
A well-designed consumer-driven health plan creates a win-win scenario. Employers hold the line on costs, and employees pay only for the coverage they need and want. This can mean a transition to high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements that help employees pay their out-of-pocket expenses and allow them to retain unspent contributions.
TOOLS PROMOTE TRANSPARENCY
Information is a double-edged sword: Employees can be overwhelmed by the voluntary benefit options available to them, but they are also empowered to make smart choices. Benefits providers, brokers and employers are providing user-friendly tools that increase transparency. Studies show that this is especially important to younger workers.
Fifty-two percent of millennials report searching online for health or care-related information, and reliance on social media, patient portals and performance scorecards is growing. One-quarter of consumers say they have looked at a scorecard or report card to compare the performance of doctors, hospitals or health plans, compared to 19 percent two years ago. Among millennials who need medical care, scorecard use has grown from 31 percent to 49 percent.
THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU… ONLINE
Telemedicine is a natural byproduct of increased telecommuting. The practice is both a cost-effective option for employers and a perk for employees who are paying more out of pocket for health care. On-call services can bring virtual health care providers into the office with advice about preventive care and nonthreatening illnesses.
ANALYTICS REDUCING GUESSWORK
Anyone remotely involved in the benefits business knows that the industry is swimming in tons of data. Innovative employers are putting this information to work to design better plans that improve health care and reduce expenses. Claims data and historical use patterns demonstrate how much employees can save on new plans by making better decisions. This information also helps employers get a better handle on plan costs, employee adoption and administrative efficiency.
NONTRADITIONAL BENEFITS BOOMING
Employees continue to express interest in new, nontraditional voluntary benefits, and carriers are responding. According to a study by Eastbridge Consulting, 13 percent of employees have selected employee purchase programs; 8 percent have selected legal plans; 3 percent have selected identity protection; and 1 percent selected pet insurance. The relatively low numbers reflect the fact that these options are new, according to researchers.
These percentages are expected to grow. Nontraditional voluntary benefits offer workers a way to obtain products and services through convenient payroll deduction. Most nontraditional offerings provide immediate, tangible benefits that can be used any time, unlike many core benefits that employees need only when they are sick or injured.
CAREER DEVELOPMENT IS HOT
Employees are eager to improve themselves, especially if doing so is cost-effective. Financial planning and online educational services, including college courses, certifications and career development, are becoming popular. Look for more of these, such as Graduate Management Admission Test prep and Graduate Medical Education courses, to be added.
MINIMUM WAGE HIKES MAY SPIKE DEMAND
Although the drive toward a $15 per hour minimum wage in some cities has been controversial, it may have an upside in demand for voluntary benefits.
“With the California minimum wage going to $15 an hour, those employees will have extra money to opt for more voluntary benefits,” said Wayne Sakamoto, owner of Health Insurance Interactive Inc. in Naples, Florida. “This extra money will help them get into a nicer apartment, buy a home, get a car or opt to purchase more voluntary benefits. Benefits such as dental and vision insurance are a goodwill gesture by the employer.”
DEMAND CREATING COMPETITION
Brokers, employers and workers all may benefit from the increasing number of carriers offering voluntary benefits.
“Brokers now have a lot more different carriers in voluntary benefits than they did several years ago,” said Kathy O’Brien, vice president of voluntary benefits and national client group services for Unum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “They have to be very knowledgeable about the carrier, what they will do to meet the needs of their clients and what types of service they offer, not just in enrollment but also in plan administration, how they will deliver the services, how they will pay and handle billing information.”
VOLUNTARY BENEFITS MUST BE INTEGRATED
A well-designed package of voluntary benefits is more efficient when integrated seamlessly with traditional benefits, and not merely tacked on. Learning how best to do this is an ongoing challenge.
“Understanding how all of the different solutions work together is critical, especially when paired with a high-deductible health plan,” said Paul Goedde, executive vice president of the Voluntary Employee Benefits Board and product management lead for Cigna in Philadelphia. “Not only does it help the employer attract and retain talent, it helps them manage their bottom line with more-productive and satisfied employees.”