Will Employers Stop Offering Health Benefits?

Ezekiel Emanuel (an oncology doctor, professor of ethics at Penn and brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel) was one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act — which, as we all know, mandates that employers with at least 50 full-time-equivalent employees provide health insurance. So it’s a bit surprising to learn that Emanuel has just written a new book in which he predicts that, as a result of the ACA, most employers in the United States will have stopped offering health benefits to their employees by 2025.

Why will companies stop offering health benefits? Because, Emanuel argues in the book — Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve Our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System (how’s that for a title?) — the online insurance exchanges will provide employers with a viable alternative for doing so. Now, after you’ve picked yourself up off the floor from laughing so hard at the idea of Healthcare.gov being described as a “viable alternative” (although many of its worst bugs appear to have been fixed), note that Emanuel does acknowledge the botched rollout of the federal online exchange and some of the state ones, yet he describes others (such as Connecticut’s state exchange) that are working well. If all of the exchanges are fixed to the point that consumers can obtain health insurance by spending only 30 minutes or so enrolling, he says, then companies will indeed have a viable alternative to the expense and administrative hassles of providing benefits and can instead simply give their employees money to go out and purchase benefits on their own. The ACA’s excise taxes on high-cost health plans scheduled for 2018 are yet another incentive to get out of the health-benefits game, says Emanuel.

Private exchanges, which are essentially a defined-contribution approach to health benefits, have certainly sparked a lot of interest among employers lately. As many as 33 percent of respondents said private health exchanges would be their preferred approach to managing health care in the next three to five years, up from 5 percent now, according to Aon Hewitt’s Health Care Survey of more than 1,230 employers covering in excess of 10 million employees (Aon happens to be one of the vendors that offers a private exchange; others include Towers Watson, Buck Consultants and many smaller vendors). Brian Poger, CEO of consulting firm Benefitter, said at the just-concluded Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas that for many employees — especially low-wage workers with families – the health coverage available on public exchanges might be a better deal than that provided by their employers, considering that many have cut back or eliminated coverage for spouses and families.

Jettisoning traditional health benefits has yet to become a major trend among U.S. employers: Accenture estimated that 1 million employees enrolled in private exchanges last year, a tiny percentage of the nation’s workforce (although it also estimated that number could grow to 40 million by 2018). There is also the risk that employees on private exchanges will “buy down” — that is, purchase less-costly plans that may ultimately leave them with less coverage and worse health outcomes than traditional health plans, which tend to have “marginal” price differences, Mike Thompson, healthcare practice leader at PwC, told me last year. Companies that switch to private exchanges may also risk breaking the linkage between benefits and wellness, he said.

The expression “paradigm shift” is an overused cliché, but it’s clear we’re in one now when it comes to health benefits. Rest assured we’ll continue to cover this area closely.

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