Carry That Weight

Small steps can go a long way toward easing the benefits burden.

Neither HMOs nor HSAs nor 401(k)s nor grand government programs are likely to fix the problem of rising health-care expenses and inadequate retirement plans. But companies that look for every little advantage will fair better than those that chalk these problems up to unmanageable trends. For companies facing a benefits crisis, the modest proposals highlighted here may offer some relief.

Engage employees in their health coverage.

You don’t have to adopt a full consumer-driven plan to tap into the idea of making employees better consumers. Help them to understand the cost of care, and encourage them to make decisions based on value.

Push for transparency in health information.

Providers have resisted disclosing price and outcome data. As the largest payer of health bills, companies can demand that vendors reveal more.

Consider using a step-therapy model for pharmacy.

For certain low-level ailments, doctors can try over-the-counter products or generics first, and move to higher-priced prescriptions only after those treatments fail.

Demand more-responsible pharmaceutical marketing.

Serve an ounce of prevention. Encourage employees to have regular checkups. Provide on-site screenings for conditions like diabetes, breast and colon cancer, and heart disease.

Promote health in the workplace.

Wellness programs need not be elaborate to be effective. Sprint Corp., for instance, has slowed its elevators and made its stairways more appealing to encourage exercise at its Overland Park, Kansas, headquarters.

Provide access to investment education and advice.

Many employees struggle with how to invest their 401(k) funds and others aren’t saving enough for a secure retirement. Some choice is good, but don’t provide too many selections. That only serves to confuse participants.

Maintain consistent rules for 401(k) matching and vesting.

The plans are intended to be long-term solutions. Constant changes can hurt participation rates and make the plans ineffective.

Be realistic.

Don’t use overly rosy assumptions for calculating pension and retiree health obligations.

Help employees obtain tax-free benefits.

Pretax payroll deductions for such items as transportation, parking, and college education are an inexpensive benefit.

Promote balance.

People place a high value on policies that help them balance work/life issues. Providing flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting is a cost-effective way to drive retention and improve worker morale.

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