5 reasons to offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019

By the first quarter of 2018, 44 million Americans owed $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. According to the Federal Reserve, this debt surpassed both credit card and auto loan debt. Read on to learn five reasons businesses should offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019.


With human resources managers across the country working to finalize their 2019 benefits packages this month, many are asking themselves: How can we add more value for our talent and help the company grow? For many employers, the answer is helping employees manage their student loan debt.

Over the years, student loan debt has reached an astronomical sum. As of 2008, college tuition fees rose by 439% from 1982. And by the first quarter of 2018, 44 million Americans owed a total of $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, exceeding both credit card debt and auto loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. Not only is this an extreme amount of debt, but has also taken an enormous emotional toll, with more than half of college-educated adults (54%) surveyed by Laurel Road in 2018 feeling that they will never make enough money to reach their financial goals.

Fast forward to today, and borrowers are seeking creative ways to tackle their debt and save more. Recently, in a private ruling, the IRS granted Abbott Laboratories, a national healthcare company, the option to contribute to employee 401(k) plans based on the employee’s student loan payments. Other companies — from corporate behemoths to busy startups — have partnered with student loan refinancing companies to offer employees refinancing options that can help them save, often at no cost to the company.

With Americans quitting their jobs at the fastest rate since 2001, keeping employees happy is imperative. And part of keeping millennials happy is to provide practical benefits, not just the fun perks. Employees are looking to foster meaningful relationships with their employers — so looping in student loan repayment benefits can pay off for both the employer and the employee.

So what’s to gain? Here are some of the top reasons employers should consider incorporating student loan repayment benefits into their 2019 benefits package.

1. Recruit, retain and stand out

In a competitive talent landscape, student loan debt relief is a modern benefit that any company can offer to incentivize the younger generation to join their team. In a recent survey conducted by Laurel Road, we found that 58% of millennials would trade an additional vacation day for student loan repayment assistance, showing how valuable meaningful benefits are to this generation. This benefit can be a deciding factor for talent, and a way for employers to attract top-performing talent by offering to support their financial futures.

2. It’s flexible and free

As an employer, you have options to create a student loan program that works for your team’s needs and the company’s bottom line. A lot of this comes from choosing the right lending or refinancing partner that can provide savings to employees. Lenders can offer companies the option to contribute or not and work to tailor the program to the specific needs and interests of the company’s workforce — with some options coming in at no cost to the employer.

3. Eliminate the student loan vs. retirement conflict

Employees with student debt often feel deeply conflicted about whether or not to save for retirement first or pay off their student loan debt. A recent study from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that college graduates with student debt accumulate 50% less retirement wealth in their 401(k) by age 30 than those without. Employees shouldn’t have to choose between contributing to retirement and paying off their student loan debt, as both are necessary to financial health. The student loan relief benefit allows employees to make a dent in both, reducing financial stress.

4. Help employees save

One of the reasons why the student loan benefit is attractive for employees is the significant savings it can lead to. If refinancing is an option, employees have the potential to save thousands of dollars over the life of their loan through a lower loan interest rate and lower monthly payments.

In the long run, the cumulative savings can add up to several thousand dollars or more. Employers should keep in mind that the savings amount will change depending on the financing company you choose to work with. Many can offer employer customers exclusive rates, which leads to even greater savings.

5. Boost morale and productivity

According to another benefits company, 31% of employees surveyed say their money concerns affect their work. Meanwhile, 74% of people feel stress daily about their student loan debt and spend time at work thinking about it, impacting their overall productivity in the workplace. So in addition to the hard savings employees are earning through these programs, they are also rewarded with the soft benefits of reduced stress and anxiety at work.

With student loan debt reaching record highs in recent years, employers have recognized that there’s a crucial need to provide employees with options to help them pay down their student loan debt. And when options like refinancing come at no cost to them, this benefit will likely become more popular. In the future, we can expect more employers to pave the way for student loan repayment programs. Will you be one of the trailblazers?

SOURCE: Schaefer, A. (28 September 2018) "5 reasons to offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/5-reasons-to-offer-a-student-loan-repayment-benefit-in-2019?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001

U.S. Unemployment Drops to Lowest Rate in 50 Years

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest it’s been in 50 years. Read this blog post to learn how this is affecting the U.S. labor market.


Unemployment in the U.S. fell to 3.7 percent in September—the lowest since 1969, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The low jobless rate, down from 3.9 percent in August, is further evidence of a strong economy—employers added 134,000 new jobs in September, extending the longest continuous jobs expansion on record at 96 months. The continued gains run counter to economists' expectations for a significant slowdown in hiring as the labor market tightens. Through the first nine months of the year, employers added an average of 211,000 workers to payrolls each month, well outpacing 2017's average monthly growth of 182,000.

"This morning's jobs report marked a new milestone for the U.S. economy," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. "With good news in most economic indicators today, it's likely the economy will continue its march forward through the remainder of 2018."

Cathy Barrera, chief economist at online employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, pointed out that the jobless rate ticked down for all education levels. "Anecdotal evidence has suggested that employers have experienced labor shortages for entry-level positions, and the decline in unemployment for these groups reflects that," she said. "More of those joining or rejoining the labor force are moving directly into jobs, reflecting the high demand for workers."

The sectors showing the strongest jobs gains in September include:

  • Professional and business services (54,000 new jobs).
  • Healthcare (26,000).
  • Transportation and warehousing (24,000).
  • Construction (23,000).
  • Manufacturing (18,000).

"Retail job losses—20,000 jobs—were widespread, and the leisure and hospitality sector lost 17,000 jobs, largely confined to restaurants," said Josh Wright, chief economist for recruitment software firm iCIMS, based in Holmdel, N.J.

"We can clearly point to a slowdown in retail trade for the dip in [overall] payroll numbers in September," said Martha Gimbel, research director for Indeed's Hiring Lab, the labor market research arm of the global job search engine. "Retail trade had a strong first half of the year but has slowed down in recent months. In addition, recent Hiring Lab research saw a slight dip in the number of holiday retail postings, suggesting that the sector may struggle in months to come."

Prior to September, employment in leisure and hospitality had been on a modest upward trend and the losses last month may reflect the impact of Hurricane Florence.

The Department of Labor said it's possible that employment in some industries was affected by Hurricane Florence which struck the Carolinas in September. Nearly 300,000 workers nationwide told the BLS that bad weather kept them away from their jobs last month.

"That's far below the level in September 2017 amid hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but significantly above the average of about 200,000 over the prior 13 years," Wright said. Upward revisions are likely, he added.

Wages Stubborn but Rising

In September, average hourly earnings for private-sector workers rose 8 cents to $27.24. Over the year, average hourly earnings have increased by 73 cents, or 2.8 percent.

"That's down slightly from the 2.9 percent pace last month, but consistent with a steady upward trend in wage growth we've seen as the job market tightens and more employers face labor shortages," Chamberlain said. "We expect to see that pace continue to rise throughout the holiday season, likely topping 3 percent within the next six months."

Glassdoor has recorded strong wage growth in tech-heavy metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

"If the true wage growth rate is at or below 2.8 percent year-over-year, it is disappointing that it is not growing faster," Barrera said. "Given how tight the labor market has been not only with overall unemployment below 4 percent, but particularly so at the entry level, we would expect wage growth to be higher. The labor turnover numbers suggest that mobility is lower than it historically has been in periods where unemployment is very low. This is one reason wages may not be rising as quickly as we'd expect."

Labor Force Participation Stalled?

The nation's labor force participation rate held at 62.7 percent.

"Looking at the labor flows data, the rate of movement of the civilian population into the labor force hasn't moved much in the last couple of years, however, more of those folks are moving directly into employment rather than into unemployment," Barrera said.

Wright noted that the number of new labor force entrants and reentrants going directly to unemployment was just 33,000. "This raises interesting questions—whenever we get a recession, how long will these reentrants and new entrants continue searching for jobs before leaving the labor force?" he asked.

The percentage of the population in their prime working years with a job also held around 79 percent, where it's been for about eight months, Gimbel said, adding that the measure suggests that the number of workers remaining to pull into the labor force may be exhausted.

"The share of the labor force working part-time but who wants a full-time job unfortunately ticked up," she said. "Any remaining slack in the economy may be concentrated in part-time workers who want more hours."

SOURCE: Maurer, R. (5 October 2018) "U.S. Unemployment Drops to Lowest Rate in 50 Years" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/us-unemployment-drops-lowest-50-years-bls-jobs.aspx/


Business meal deductions likely here to stay after new IRS guidelines

After much confusion following the IRS’s decision to end deductions for client entertainment, they are expected to release guidance regarding business meal deductions. Read this blog post to learn more.


Employers wondering whether they can still deduct business meals from their tax returns may soon be getting an answer from the Internal Revenue Service.

The agency is expected to release guidance saying that business meals will continue to be 50% deductible, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The confusion over the deductibility of business meals stems from the IRS’s decision to end deductions for client entertainment, a move that was part of the government’s tax overhaul. Previously, the entertainment-related deduction was 50% of qualified expenses.

The elimination of deductions for client entertainment left many tax professionals wondering whether client meals might be considered entertainment and therefore no longer qualify for deductions.

The anticipated IRS guidance — which comes at the urging of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and other groups — is expected to preserve the 50% deduction for the cost of meals with clients and elaborate on how the 50% meal write-off meshes with entertainment expenses, the Wall Street Journal said.

If a business owner or employee, for example, takes a client to a ballgame, the cost of the tickets is not deductible because the expense is for entertainment. Hots dogs and drinks purchased at the event, however, could still be 50% deductible, the IRS is expected to say, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The IRS, which did not respond to a request for comment, is not likely to change the normal requirements corporate executives must meet to take deductions for client meals.

They must discuss business with the client before, during and after the meal, and the meal must not be “lavish or extravagant,” the Wall Street Journal said.

SOURCE: Correia, M. (28 September 2018) "Business meal deductions likely here to stay after new IRS guidelines" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/business-meal-deductions-likely-here-to-stay-after-new-irs-guidelines?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001


Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide

Switching to a self-funded plan can seem like a daunting prospect to many HR directors, but there are also many significant benefits to switching. Read on for three tools to help you decide if you’re ready to switch.


When your health plan is fully insured, it’s easy for your finance department to budget for the cost — you just pass on the health insurer’s annual renewal premium amount to them and that becomes the annual budget number. But you and your broker may have come to suspect that you are leaving money on the table by continuing on a fully insured basis, and you may want to test the self-funded waters.

By now, you may already know there are significant benefits to self-funding, but actually making the switch is a scary prospect for HR directors.

Before you can transition to a self-funded plan, you need to be financially stable and willing to take a bit of a risk. As a safeguard, you also need to familiarize yourself with the two forms of stop-loss insurance. One caps the impact on any one covered member’s claims (individual or specific stop loss), and the other caps your total annual claim liability (aggregate stop loss). Your broker can guide you on which stop loss levels and which stop-loss coverage periods are right for your population when transitioning from fully insured to self-funding.

Beyond these stop-loss safeguards, size will dictate how you pay. If you have fewer than 100 covered employees, you may be able to pay the same amount monthly, just as you do with your fully insured premium. This monthly payment equals projected claims plus an aggregate margin, a monthly administration fee and the stop loss charge. This eliminates unpredictable monthly payments for a small self-funded group.

However, for larger groups of over 100 employees, moving to self-funding will mean paying claims as they are processed (which means uneven claim payments), plus stop loss and administration.

To help you determine if you’re ready for self-funding, you may want to analyze your plan in a few different ways.

1. Look back: A look back analysis is just what it sounds like — a view of how your plan would have performed over the last couple years had you been self-funded, compared to how it did perform under a fully insured model. This should be an easy enough task for your broker to take on, especially if they have sought out self-funded quotes from claim administrators and stop-loss carriers on your behalf. In addition, they should know what your actual claims costs were. The result is that you’ll know whether you would have saved money or not.

2. Look forward: You may already know what your upcoming fully insured renewal looks like. But even if you don’t have hard numbers yet, you can work with your broker to determine a strong estimate of what your proposed premiums will be. Then, your broker should get a self-funded quote, which includes the expected and maximum claims, plus the administrative fees and stop-loss premiums. This is your expected self-funded costs for the upcoming policy period. Compare that estimate to your fully insured renewal costs. (Make sure the self-funded costs are on the same “incurred claims with runout” basis that the fully insured costs would be, for a fair apples-to-apples comparison.)
3. Probability. While the “look forward” analysis compares your fully insured costs to your expected self-funded costs, it is based on “expected” claims. The risky part of self-funding is that your actual claims will not ultimately materialize exactly as expected. There are some more sophisticated tools that combine group-specific data (such as your claims history, demographics and the proposed fixed costs) with a fairly large actuarial database to come up with thousands of possible outcomes.

By charting all of these outcomes, you can produce likelihood percentages of where your actual claims will come in at — versus the “expected” level, and versus the fully insured renewal rate. Not all brokers have this tool on hand, and as a result, there may be a cost associated with producing one. The output from this tool may appeal to your colleagues in the finance department.

Other considerations

During your analysis, you may want to set your self-funded policy year liability based on incurred claims (plus fixed costs), even though your actual paid claims within that policy year may be less due to the lag between when provider services occur and when you actually fund them. The lag is a cash-flow advantage but it does not represent a reduced claim liability.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the cost of high claimants, an important part of planning if you choose the self-funding route. Will your past high claimants continue into your renewal period? Are you aware of new high claimants on the horizon? Stop-loss carriers generally insure only “unknown risks,” not “known risks.” If a plan member has an expensive chronic condition, such as kidney failure, a stop loss carrier may “laser” that individual and set a higher individual stop-loss threshold. It’s important that you know what’s excluded and factor in any uncovered catastrophic claimants into your analysis.

In the end, it may turn out that self-funding is not a good fit, or possibly that this year is just not the year for it. But whether it is, or it isn’t, it is comforting to know that you’ve done your due diligence and have documentation supporting the decision you’ve reached.

SOURCE: DePaola, Raymond (5 October 2018) "Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/ready-for-self-funding-three-tools-to-help-you-decide


How employers can support employees during cancer treatment

The number of cancer survivors in the United States has grown to 15.5 million and is expected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. Read on to learn how employers can support their employees during their cancer treatment.


Thanks to more sensitive diagnostic testing, earlier diagnosis and new treatments, the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. has grown to 15.5 million, and that number is projected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. In addition, about 1.7 million Americans are projected to be diagnosed with cancer this year. A large percentage of these cancer patients and survivors are still active members of the workforce and the numbers have the potential to increase even more as people remain in the workforce beyond age 65.

Some people with cancer choose to continue working during treatment. Reasons for continuing to work can be psychological as well as financial. For some, their job or career is a big part of the foundation of their identity. A survey conducted by the non-profit Cancer and Careers found that 48% of those surveyed said they continued to work during treatment because they wanted to keep their lives as normal as possible, and 38% said they worked so that they felt productive. Being in the workforce also provides a connection to a supportive social system for many people and boosts their self-esteem and quality of life.

There also are financial benefits to the employer when employees continue to work during cancer treatment. Turnover costs, including hiring temporary employees and training replacement employees, are high. The cost of turnover for employees who earn $50,000 per year or less (which is approximately 75% of U.S. workers) average 20% of salary. For senior and executive level employees, that cost can reach 213% of salary. In addition, it can be costly to lose the experience, expertise, contacts and customer relationships employees have built.

This raises the question for employers: How can I support employees who choose to work while undergoing cancer treatment? Providing that support can be complex as employers work to balance their legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities and Family and Medical Leave Acts with the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

When an employee chooses to share his or her diagnosis with a supervisor or HR representative, employers should view this disclosure as the beginning of a conversation with the employee taking the lead. (It’s up to the employee what information he or she wants to disclose about the diagnosis and treatment and with whom the information can be shared within the organization.) Here are four ways employers can support employees who are getting cancer treatment.

Help employees understand what benefits are available

The first step an employer should take is to refer the employee to the organization’s human resources manager (or someone who handles HR matters if the organization is smaller and does not have a human resources department) so that person can share information about all available benefits and pertinent policies. Provide details on:

  • Medical and prescription drug coverages, including deductibles, co-pays, precertification requirements, network healthcare providers and plan and lifetime maximums
  • Leave policies
  • Flexible scheduling and remote work options, if available
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Community resources and support groups

Offer professional guidance

Offering patient navigator or case management services can also be beneficial. Navigators and case managers can provide a range of services including:

  • Connecting employees with healthcare providers
  • Arranging second opinions
  • Providing evidence-based information on the type of cancer the employee has been diagnosed with and options for treatments
  • Help filing health insurance claims, reviewing medical bills and handling medical paperwork
  • Coordinating communication and medical records among members of the treatment team
  • Attending appointments with employees
  • Answering employee questions about treatments and managing side effects

Make accommodations

Workplace accommodations are another key pillar of support for employees working during cancer treatment. In addition to flexible scheduling, to accommodate medical appointments and help employees manage side effects like fatigue and nausea, and the option of working from home, workplace accommodations can include:

  • Temporary assignment to a less physically taxing job
  • Substituting video conferencing or online meetings for travel, which can be difficult for employees dealing with fatigue or a suppressed immune system, and can make it hard to attend needed medical appointments
  • Leave sharing for employees who have used all their paid time off and can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Some organizations offer leave banks or pools where employees can “deposit” or donate some of their vacation days for employees dealing with a serious illness to use.

Employees may continue to need accommodations after treatment ends if they face late side effects such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, numbness caused by nerve damage or heart or lung problems. Continuing job and schedule modifications can help mitigate the situation.

Ask for employee input

An often overlooked part of supporting employees who are working during cancer treatment is asking the employee what types of support he or she needs and prefers. Employees can share any medical restrictions related to their condition, what types of accommodations or equipment will help them do their job, and what schedule changes will allow them to attend needed appointments and recover from treatment. This should be an ongoing conversation because the employee’s needs are likely to change over the course of treatment and recovery.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (21 September 2018) "How employers can support employees during cancer treatment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-employers-can-support-employees-during-cancer-treatment?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001


IRS updates required tax notice to address plan loan offsets

Recently, the IRS updated the model notice that must be sent out to all plan participants. This model notice modifies the prior model notices that were published four years ago in 2014. Continue reading to learn more.


The IRS has updated the model notice that is required to be provided to participants before they receive an “eligible rollover distribution” from a qualified 401(a) plan, a 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity, or a governmental 457(b) plan.

Notice 2018-74, which was published on September 18, 2018, modifies the prior safe-harbor explanations (model notices) that were published in 2014. Like the 2014 guidance, the 2018 Notice — sometimes referred to as the “402(f) Notice” or “Special Tax Notice” — includes two separate “model” notices that are deemed to satisfy the requirements of Code Section 402(f): one for distributions that are not from a designated Roth account, and one for distributions from a designated Roth account. The 2018 Notice also includes an appendix that can be used to modify (rather than replace) existing safe-harbor 402(f) notices.

The model notices were updated to take into consideration certain legislation that has been enacted, and other IRS guidance that has been published, since 2014. They include:

  • changes related to qualified plan loan offsets under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017;
  • changes in the rules for phased retirement under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (“MAP-21”);
  • changes in the exceptions to the 10% penalty for early distributions from governmental plans under the Defending Public Safety Employees’ Retirement Act; and
  • IRS guidance (in Revenue Procedure 2016-47) regarding a self-certification procedure for waivers of the 60-day rollover deadline.

The model notices also make some “clarifying” changes to the 2014 notices, including:

  • clarification that the 10% additional tax on early distributions applies only to amounts includible in income;
  • an explanation of how the rollover rules apply to governmental 457(b) plans that include designated Roth accounts;
  • clarification that certain exceptions to the 10% tax on early distributions do not apply to IRAs; and
  • recognizing that taxpayers affected by federally declared disasters and other events may have an extended deadline for making rollovers.

The updated model 402(f) notices should be particularly useful in communicating to participants the extension, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, of the time to roll over a “qualified plan loan offset amount.”

Inside the plan load offset

By way of background, Notice 2018-74 reminds us that distribution of a “plan loan offset amount” is an eligible rollover distribution, and that a “plan loan offset” occurs when, under the plan terms governing a plan loan, the participant’s accrued benefit is reduced, or offset, in order to repay the loan. According to the Notice, this can occur when, for example, the terms of the plan loan require that, in the event of an employee’s termination of employment or request for a distribution, the loan is to be repaid immediately or treated as in default.

The Notice also indicates that a plan loan offset may occur when, under the terms of the plan loan, the loan is canceled, accelerated, or treated as if it were in default (for example, when the plan treats a loan as in default upon an employee’s termination of employment or within a specified period thereafter). The Notice also reminds us, however, that a plan loan offset cannot occur prior to a distributable event.

This is helpful guidance for distinguishing between a “deemed distribution” of a defaulted loan (a taxable event which is not eligible for rollover) and a “plan loan offset amount,” which is an eligible rollover distribution.

Generally, if a default occurs before the participant has a distributable event (such as termination of employment, or attainment of age 59½), and the default is not cured by the last day of the cure period, it must be treated as a “deemed distribution” and reported on Form 1099. Such defaulted amounts are not eligible for rollover.

However, if the default occurs at or after a distribution event, and the plan terms require that the participant’s account be offset to pay off the loan, then the reduction of the account may be treated as a plan loan offset, which is an eligible rollover distribution.

Notice 2018-74 (and the new model notices) also reflect that, prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, participants who incurred a “plan loan offset” only had 60 days to “roll” an equivalent amount of money to an IRA or another employer plan (to avoid the offset being treated as a taxable distribution). However, for plan loan offsets that occur after December 31, 2017, if the plan loan offset is a “qualified plan loan offset” (meaning it occurs in connection with termination of employment or termination of the plan), then the participant has significantly more time (until the extended due date of the participant’s tax return for the year of the offset) in which to roll an amount equal to the loan offset amount to an IRA or another employer plan.

SOURCE: Browning, R (4 October 2018) "IRS updates required tax notice to address plan loan offsets" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/irs-updates-required-tax-notice-to-address-plan-loan-offsets?brief=00000152-146e-d1cc-a5fa-7cff8fee0000


Stop making 401(k) contributions. Fill up your HSA first

Are your employees making contributions to a 401(k) or an HSA? Read this blog post to learn why employees should contribute to their HSA before their 401(k).


With healthcare open enrollment season approaching, employees electing a high-deductible health plan will soon have an opportunity to decide how much to contribute to their health savings account for next year.

My advice?

Contribute as much as you possibly can. And prioritize your HSA contributions ahead of your 401(k) contributions. I believe that employees eligible to contribute to an HSA should max out their HSA contributions each year. Here’s why.

See also: 

HSAs are triple tax-free. HSA payroll contributions are made pre-tax. When balances are used to pay qualified healthcare expenses, the money comes out of HSA accounts tax-free. Earnings on HSA balances also accumulate tax-free. There are no other employee benefits that work this way.

HSA payroll contributions are truly tax-free. Unlike pre-tax 401(k) contributions, HSA contributions made from payroll deductions are truly pre-tax in that Medicare and Social Security taxes are not withheld. Both 401(k) pre-tax payroll contributions and HSA payroll contributions are made without deductions for state and federal taxes.

No use it or lose it. You may confuse HSAs with flexible spending accounts, where balances not used during a particular year are forfeited. With HSAs, unused balances carry over to the next year. And so on, forever. Well at least until you pass away. HSA balances are never forfeited due to lack of use.

Paying retiree healthcare expenses. Anyone fortunate enough to accumulate an HSA balance that is carried over into retirement may use it to pay for many routine and non-routine healthcare expenses.

See also:

HSA balances can be used to pay for Medicare premiums, long-term care insurance premiums, COBRA premiums, prescription drugs, dental expenses and, of course, any co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance amounts for you or your spouse. HSA accounts are a tax-efficient way of paying for healthcare expenses in retirement, especially if the alternative is taking a taxable 401(k) or IRA distribution.

No age 70 1/2 minimum distribution requirements. There are no requirements to take minimum distributions at age 70.5 from HSA accounts as there are on 401(k) and IRA accounts. Any unused balance at your death can be passed on to your spouse (make sure you have completed a beneficiary designation so the account avoids probate). After your death, your spouse can enjoy the same tax-free use of your account. (Non-spouse beneficiaries lose all tax-free benefits of HSAs).

Contribution limits. Maximum annual HSA contribution limits (employer plus employee) for 2019 are modest — $3,500 per individual and $7,000 for a family. An additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions is permitted for those age 55 and older. Legislation has been proposed to increase the amount of allowable contributions and make usage more flexible. Hopefully, it will pass.

HSAs and retirement planning. Most individuals will likely benefit from the following contribution strategy incorporating HSA and 401(k) accounts:

  1. Determine and make the maximum contributions to your HSA account via payroll deduction. The maximum annual contributions are outlined above.
  2. Calculate the percentage that allows you to receive the maximum company match in your 401(k) plan. Make sure you contribute at least that percentage each year. There is no better investment anyone can make than receiving free money. You may be surprised that I am prioritizing HSA contributions ahead of employee 401(k) contributions that generate a match. There are good reasons. Besides being triple tax-free and not being subject to age 70 1/2 required minimum distributions, these account balances will likely be used every year. Unfortunately, you may die before using any of your retirement savings. However, someone in your family is likely to have healthcare expenses each year.
  3. If the ability to contribute still exists, then calculate what it would take to max out your contributions to your 401(k) plan by making either the maximum percentage contribution or reaching the annual limit.
  4. Finally, if you are still able to contribute and are eligible, consider contributing to a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs have no age 70 1/2 minimum distribution requirements (unlike pre-tax IRAs and 401(k) accounts). In addition, account balances may be withdrawn tax-free if certain conditions are met.

The contributions outlined above do not have to be made sequentially. In fact, it would be easiest and best to make all contributions on a continuous, simultaneous, regular basis throughout the year. Calculate each contribution percentage separately and then determine what you can commit to for the year.

See also: 

Investing in HSA contributions is important. The keys to building an HSA balance that carries over into retirement include maxing out HSA contributions each year and investing unused contributions so account balances can grow. If your HSAs don’t offer investment funds, talk to your human resources department about adding them.

HSAs will continue to become a more important source of funds for retirees to pay healthcare expenses as the use of HDHPs becomes more prevalent. Make sure you maximize your use of these accounts every year.

SOURCE: Lawton, R. (19 September 2018) "Stop making 401(k) contributions. Fill up your HSA first" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/viewsstop-making-401k-contributions-fill-up-your-hsa-first


Oct. 15 Deadline Nears for Medicare Part D Coverage Notices

Are you ready for the Medicare Part D coverage notice deadline? Plan sponsors that offer prescription drug coverage must provide notices to Medicare-eligible individuals before October 15. Continue reading to learn more.


Plan sponsors that offer prescription drug coverage must provide notices of "creditable" or "non-creditable" coverage to Medicare-eligible individuals before each year's Medicare Part D annual enrollment period by Oct. 15.

Prescription drug coverage is creditable when it is at least actuarially equivalent to Medicare's standard Part D coverage and non-creditable when it does not provide, on average, as much coverage as Medicare's standard Part D plan.

The notice obligation is not limited to retirees and their dependents covered by the employers' plan, but also includes Medicare-eligible active employees and their dependents and Medicare-eligible COBRA participants and their dependents.

Background

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 requires group health plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage to disclose annually to individuals eligible for Medicare Part D whether the plan's coverage is creditable or non-creditable.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has provided a Creditable Coverage Simplified Determination method that plan sponsors can use to determine if a plan provides creditable coverage.

Disclosure of whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable allows individuals to make informed decisions about whether to remain in their current prescription drug plan or enroll in Medicare Part D during the Part D annual enrollment period.

Individuals who do not enroll in Medicare Part D during their initial enrollment period, and who subsequently go at least 63 consecutive days without creditable coverage (e.g., because they dropped their creditable coverage or have non-creditable coverage) generally will pay higher premiums if they enroll in a Medicare drug plan at a later date.

Who Must Receive the Notice?

The notice must be provided to all Medicare-eligible individuals who are covered under, or eligible for, the sponsor's prescription drug plan, regardless of whether the plan pays primary or secondary to Medicare. Thus, the notice obligation is not limited to retirees and their dependents but also includes Medicare-eligible active employees and their dependents and Medicare-eligible COBRA participants and their dependents.

Notice Requirements

The Medicare Part D annual enrollment period runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Each year, before the enrollment period begins (i.e., by Oct. 14), plan sponsors must notify Medicare-eligible individuals whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable or non-creditable. The Oct. 15 deadline applies to insured and self-funded plans, regardless of plan size, employer size or grandfathered status.

Part D eligible individuals must be given notices of the creditable or non-creditable status of their prescription drug coverage:

  • Before an individual's initial enrollment period for Part D.
  • Before the effective date of coverage for any Medicare-eligible individual who joins an employer plan.
  • Whenever prescription drug coverage ends or creditable coverage status changes.
  • Upon the individual's request.

According to CMS, the requirement to provide the notice prior to an individual's initial enrollment period will also be satisfied as long as the notice is provided to all plan participants each year before the beginning of the Medicare Part D annual enrollment period.

An EGWP exception

Employers that provide prescription drug coverage through a Medicare Part D Employer Group Waiver Plan (EGWP) are not required to provide the creditable coverage notice to individuals eligible for the EGWP.

The required notices may be provided in annual enrollment materials, separate mailings or electronically. Whether plan sponsors use the CMS model notices or other notices that meet prescribed standards, they must provide the required disclosures no later than Oct. 14, 2017.

Model notices that can be used to satisfy creditable/non-creditable coverage disclosure requirements are available in both English and Spanish on the CMS website.

Plan sponsors that choose not to use the model disclosure notices must provide notices that meet prescribed content standards. Notices of creditable/non-creditable coverage may be included in annual enrollment materials, sent in separate mailings or delivered electronically.

What if no prescription drug coverage is offered?

Because the notice informs individuals whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable or non-creditable, no notice is required when prescription drug coverage is not offered.

Plan sponsors may provide electronic notice to plan participants who have regular work-related computer access to the sponsor's electronic information system. However, plan sponsors that use this disclosure method must inform participants that they are responsible for providing notices to any Medicare-eligible dependents covered under the group health plan.

Electronic notice may also be provided to employees who do not have regular work-related computer access to the plan sponsor's electronic information system and to retirees or COBRA qualified beneficiaries, but only with a valid email address and their prior consent. Before individuals can effectively consent, they must be informed of the right to receive a paper copy, how to withdraw consent, how to update address information, and any hardware/software requirements to access and save the disclosure. In addition to emailing the notice to the individual, the sponsor must also post the notice (if not personalized) on its website.

Don't forget the disclosure to CMS

Plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage to Medicare-eligible individuals must also disclose to CMS annually whether the coverage is creditable or non-creditable. This disclosure must be made no more than 60 days after the beginning of each plan year—generally, by March 1. The CMS disclosure obligation applies to all plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage, even those that do not offer prescription drug coverage to retirees.

SOURCE: Chan, K.; Stover, R. (10 September 2018) "Oct. 15 Deadline Nears for Medicare Part D Coverage Notices" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/medicare-d-notice-deadline.aspx/


Get Moving...To Live!

Are your employees sitting all day at work? Regardless of who you are and how often you exercise, if you're sitting for long periods of time, your chance of an early death increases. Read on to learn more.


The phrase: “If I’m lying, I’m dying” should be changed to: “If I’m sitting, I’m dying” even though it doesn’t rhyme. If you haven’t heard by now, sitting for long periods of time increases the chance that you’ll die early, regardless of your race, gender, age, body mass index (BMI), or even if you exercise. The longer you sit, the higher your risk of dying sooner rather than later.

See also: 7 wellness program ideas you may want to steal

Every morning, people get ready for work and then sit in their cars (or public transportation), then sit when they get to work, then sit again in their cars, then sit in from of the TV when they get home. It’s time everyone breaks that cycle and starts moving around more during the day and not just when they’re at the gym, assuming they even go.

Fortunately, in an article on CNN’s website titled, “Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise,” reveals that taking “movement breaks” every 30 minutes basically cancels out this health problem. But it’s not as simple as just standing, there are two factors impacting this—frequency and duration. How often you sit during the day, and how long you sit each time, have an effect. The article references the American Heart Association’s message of “Sit less, move more,” but admonishes them for not telling people how they should move around, or for how long.

See also: Beyond wellness: Workplace health initiatives that work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specific guidelines and recommendations for exercising, but none for sitting. For example, if you sit for 30 minutes, you should probably walk around for at least five minutes before sitting down again. And don’t assume that a “standing desk” is healthier than a traditional desk where you sit down. There isn’t enough evidence to say that a standing desk is better. It’s all about actual movement, which is why simply standing up isn’t enough.

Age is another factor that would seem to make a difference but actually doesn’t. The article discusses age, yet the same principles apply. Older adults who sat more often and for long durations were far more likely to die earlier than those who sat less.

See also: Top 10 Corporate Wellness Habits to Adopt During 2018

The message is clear. Regardless of who you are, what you do for a living, or how “fit” you may be, if you’re not moving around during the day and sitting for fewer than 30 minutes, you’d better get used to the fact that you may not be around as long as you expect, so get moving!

SOURCE: Olson, B. (18 September 2018) "Get Moving...To Live!" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://blog.ubabenefits.com/get-moving...to-live


5 critical conversations to have before retiring

According to the Society of Actuaries' Retirement Section and Committee on Post Retirement Needs and Risks, about 70 percent of Americans are on course to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Read on to learn more.


Reports of Americans’ lack of retirement preparedness roll on. Not all the news is grim, however. A recent study from the Society of Actuaries’ Retirement Section and Committee on Post Retirement Needs and Risks reports that roughly 70% of Americans are on course to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.

What we know from those who report being comfortable in retirement is that they took the steps necessary to properly prepare.

It’s not just what employees and clients have earned and saved that contributes to their quality of life in retirement, it’s also how they approach their assets, expenses, and income. To this end, individuals must speak frankly with those in their lives — partner or spouse, employer, children — who are pivotal to key aspects of retirement living.

Here are the five critical conversations individuals should have well in advance of retirement:

With your spouse or partner

1. Are we on the same page about the lifestyle we expect to have in retirement?

Before you retire, you and your partner need to get on the same page about what this means in day-to-day terms. For example, did you know that your living expenses in retirement will likely be about 80% of your pre-retirement living expenses? This means that your monthly budget will change and it’s important to make the changes thoughtfully. Examine your priorities and assumptions together to avoid misunderstandings that lead to financial missteps.

Do yourselves a favor and take a gradual approach to downsizing your spending well before retirement. This will let you significantly cut your monthly expenses without feeling the shock of adjustment. Take a close look at your monthly expenses together and identify items you can do without. Then, start eliminating a few at a time.

2. Are there parts of our life we should “downsize” before we retire?

Downsizing your home can be a real savings opportunity in retirement. Relocating to a city with a lower cost of living can also cut your monthly expenses considerably. You can even downsize your car, or go car-free altogether. These are big changes, however, that you and your partner need to consider very carefully together. You’ll want to weigh the possible savings against other important but not necessarily financial factors, such as proximity to friends and family and access to good recreational and medical facilities. Take your time weighing the pros and cons. If you can agree on which tradeoffs you are both willing to make, the impact on your security and comfort in retirement can be huge.

3. Are we really ready to retire? If not, what do we need to do to get there?

Compare your “retirement number” to your anticipated monthly expenses. Identify discrepancies so you can make adjustments and plans as needed.

Do we need to delay retirement by a few years? Even one or two extra years of work, during your peak earning years, may have a significant effect on your quality of life in retirement. Consider this question carefully as you plan when to leave work.

What other sources of income will be available to us in retirement? There are many paths to a comfortable retirement and many different ways to patch together the right assets and investments to provide for your retirement. Even if your investment portfolio is not large enough to support your retirement needs, for example, you may find that you have other assets (a business, or real estate) that can contribute. Or one or both of you may choose to work part time — the “sharing economy” is a good place to start. Or, you may decide to sell off assets you no longer need.

With your employer

4. Should I transition to a freelance/consulting relationship?
Even if you’re looking forward to stepping away from your professional career, the smart move may be to maintain a freelance or consulting relationship with your current employer. Chances are, you have experience and skills that will continue to be valuable to your employer, even when you are no longer on staff full-time. A dependable source of extra income will help you cover unexpected expenses in retirement. Or, you can use the extra income to pay for more of the things you always dreamed of doing in retirement, like hobbies and travel.

Before you have the conversation with your boss, research what a fair fee rate is for someone at your experience level, in your industry. This will allow you to negotiate your future contract from a position of strength. Your track record as a reliable employee and the cost savings to your employer of no longer having you as full time staff should also boost the argument in your favor.

With your adult children

5. How will our lifestyle changes in retirement affect the rest of the family?

Changes in your lifestyle in retirement may affect your extended family in various ways. Setting realistic expectations up front may help ease any necessary adjustments.

For example, are your adult children accustomed to receiving financial assistance from you? Let them know that this may no longer be possible after you retire and have less disposable income.

Downsizing your house? If you have been the default host for family holiday celebrations, downsizing to a smaller home may require the family to rethink future holiday arrangements. Don’t wait until the holidays are upon you to spring the change on them: discussing it ahead of time will ensure that everyone’s best ideas are considered and good alternate plans made.

Planning to relocate, or travel frequently after you retire? You will likely no longer be available for babysitting or many other family activities. Giving your kids and grandkids plenty of notice will help them plan ahead.

These conversations may be awkward and possibly painful, but they need to take place. After saving for years, a clear eye will help with your post-work years.

SOURCE: Dearing, C (12 September 2018) "5 critical conversations to have before retiring" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/critical-conversations-to-have-before-retiring