Two opportunities created by association health plans

The new regulations around association health plans (AHPs) — which loosen restrictions for small businesses, franchises and associations — create two distinct opportunities in the benefits industry.

The first is for brokers, who will be crucial advisors to employers eligible for the new coverage options now available.

The second opportunity is for benefits and HR tech vendors, who will be instrumental in managing the transactional and administrative challenges that would otherwise hinder AHP success.

What challenges do association health plans represent? Let’s consider an example — the Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant franchise.

Let’s say Nashville Hot Chicken has 1,000 franchisees, each with five full-time employees. Before AHP options became available to this organization, these five-employee groups would either have had to pursue small group coverage, or employees would have had to find individual plans.

Both options likely would have been prohibitively expensive for the organization or the employees. With the new AHP regulations, however, these 1,000 franchisees may be able to pull all 5,000 workers together and create a large group benefits plan.

In doing so, they would reap the advantages of collective purchasing, just like large groups do. However, this AHP would not work like a regular group plan.

If a regular group has 5,000 employees, they would all be part of a centrally-operated payroll system and the insurance companies would receive just one check for all of the employees enrolled at the group. But under an AHP of franchisees, all the payroll systems would operate independently, and there is no clear, centralized entity to pay carriers.

This creates a massive administrative headache for Nashville Hot Chicken corporate, as well as all the individual franchise owners. In other words, who is going to manage the AHP?

Here’s where the brokers come in. Employers need brokers to walk them through all the complexities of AHPs, including sourcing carriers, third-party vendors, and compliance needs.

It would also be incredibly impractical to manage 5,000 employees through 1,000 separate businesses without a benefits and HR platform.

But brokers can provide a solution to this challenge by adopting a platform. With a benefits and HR system, the various administrative differences from franchisee to franchisee can be accounted for, while still allowing the 5,000-life group to enroll in the group offering.

By removing the administrative headache, benefits tech makes AHPs a real option for Nashville Hot Chicken. But it also gives the tech-savvy broker a clear leg up on the competition. A broker without a tech solution will be at a severe disadvantage for Nashville Hot Chicken’s business compared to a broker who has a platform.

So as small employers, franchisees and industry associations band together for group coverage, benefits tech can give brokers a competitive differentiator for this new business segment.

Read the article.

Source:
Tolbert A. (1 March 2018). "Two opportunities created by association health plans" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/01/two-opportunities-created-by-association-health-pl/


Pay-to-shop health care incentives gaining traction

Laurie Cook went shopping recently for a mammogram near her home in New Hampshire. Using an online tool provided through her insurer, she plugged in her ZIP code. Up popped facilities in her network, each with an incentive amount she would be paid if she chose it.

Paid? To get a test? It’s part of a strategy to rein in health care spending by steering patients to the most cost-effective providers for non-emergency care.

State public employee insurance programs were among the early adopters of this approach. It is now finding a foothold among policymakers and in the private sector.

Scrolling through her options, Cook, a school nurse who is covered through New Hampshire’s state employee health plan, found that choosing a certain facility scored her a $50 check in the mail.

She then used the website again to shop for a series of lab tests. “For a while there, I was getting a $25 check every few weeks,” said Cook. The checks represented a share of the cost savings that resulted from her selections.

Lawmakers in nearby Maine took the idea further, recently enacting legislation that requires some private insurers to offer pay-to-shop incentives, part of a movement backed by a conservative foundation to get similar measures passed nationally.

Similar proposals are pending in a handful of other statehouses, including Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

“If insurance plans were serious about saving money, they would have been doing this stuff years ago,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a limited-government advocacy group based in Naples, Fla., that promotes such “right-to-shop” laws. “This starts to peel back the black box in health care and make the conversation about value.”

Still, some economists caution that shop-around initiatives alone cannot force the level of market-based change needed. While such shopping may make a difference for individual employers, they note it represents a tiny drop of the $3.3 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. each year.

“These are not crazy ideas,” said David Asch, professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation in Philadelphia. But it’s hard to get consumers to change behavior — and curbing health care spending is an even bigger task. Shopping incentives, he warned, “might be less effective than you think.”

If they achieve nothing else, though, such efforts could help remove barriers to price transparency, said Francois de Brantes, vice president and director of the Center for Value in Health Care at Altarum, a nonprofit that studies the health economy.

“I think this could be quite the breakthrough,” he said.

Yet de Brantes predicts only modest savings if shopping simply results in narrowing the price variation between high- and low-cost providers: “Ideally, transparency is about stopping folks from continuously charging more.”

Among the programs in use, only a few show consumers the price differences among facilities. Many, like the one Cook used, merely display the financial incentives attached to each facility based on the underlying price.

 

Advocates say both approaches can work.

“When your plan members have ‘skin in the game,’ they have an incentive to consider the overall cost to the plan,” said Catherine Keane, deputy commissioner of administrative services in New Hampshire. She credits the incentives with leading to millions of dollars in savings each year.

Several states require insurers or medical providers to provide cost estimates upon patients’ requests, although studies have found that information can still be hard to access.

Now, private firms are marketing ways to make this information more available by incorporating it into incentive programs.

For example, Vitals, the New Hampshire-based company that runs the program Cook uses, and Healthcare Bluebook in Nashville offer employers — for a fee — comparative shopping gizmos that harness medical cost information from claims data. This information becomes the basis by which consumers shop around.

Crossing Network Lines

Maine’s law, adopted last year, requires insurers that sell coverage to small businesses to offer financial incentives — such as gift cards, discounts on deductibles or direct payments — to encourage patients, starting in 2019, to shop around.

A second and possibly more controversial provision also kicks in next year, requiring insurers, except HMOs, to allow patients to go out-of-network for care if they can find comparable services for less than the average price insurers pay in network.

Similar provisions are included in a West Virginia bill now under debate.

Touted by proponents as a way to promote health care choice, it nonetheless raises questions about how the out-of-network price would be calculated, what information would be publicly disclosed about how much insurers actually pay different hospitals, doctors or clinics for care and whether patients can find charges lower than in-network negotiated rates.

“Mathematically, that just doesn’t work” because out-of-network charges are likely to be far higher than negotiated in-network rates, said Joe Letnaunchyn, president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association.

Not necessarily, counters the bill’s sponsor, Del. Eric Householder, who said he introduced the measure after speaking with the Foundation for Government Accountability. The Republican from the Martinsburg area said “the biggest thing lacking right now is health care choice because we’re limited to our in-network providers.”

Shopping for health care faces other challenges. For one thing, much of medical care is not “shoppable,” meaning it falls in the category of emergency services. But things such as blood tests, imaging exams, cancer screening tests and some drugs that are administered in doctor’s offices are fair game.

Less than half of the more than $500 billion spent on health care by people with job-based insurance falls into this category, according to a 2016 study by the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that analyzes payment data from four large national insurers. The report also noted there must be variation in price between providers in a region for these programs to make sense.

Increasingly, though, evidence is mounting that large price differences for medical care exist — even among rates negotiated by the same insurer.

“The price differences are so substantial it’s actually scary,” said Heyward Donigan, CEO of Vitals.

At the request of Kaiser Health News, Healthcare Bluebook ran some sample numbers for a Northern Virginia ZIP code, finding the cost of a colonoscopy ranged from $670 to $6,240, while a knee arthroscopy ranged from $1,959 to $20,241.

Another challenge is the belief by some consumers that higher prices mean higher quality, which studies don’t bear out.

Even with incentives, the programs face what may be their biggest challenge: simply getting people to use a shopping tool.

Kentucky state spokeswoman Jenny Goins said only 52 percent of eligible employees looked at the shopping site last year — and, of those, slightly more than half chose a less expensive option.

“That’s not as high as we would like,” she said.

Still, state workers in Kentucky have pocketed more than $1.6 million in incentives — and the state said it has saved $11 million — since the program began in mid-2013.

Deductibles, the annual amounts consumers must pay before their insurance kicks in and are usually $1,000 or more, are more effective than smaller shopping incentives, say some policy experts.

In New Hampshire, it took a combination of the two.

The state rolled out the payments for shopping around — and a website to look for best prices — in 2010. But participation didn’t really start to take off until 2014, when state employees began facing an annual deductible, said Deputy Commissioner Keane.

Still, the biggest question is whether these programs ultimately cause providers to lower prices.

Anecdotally, administrators think so.

Kentucky officials report they already are witnessing a market response because providers want patients to have an incentive to choose them.

“We do know providers are calling and asking, ‘How do I get my name on that list’ [of cost-effective providers]?” said Kentucky spokeswoman Goins. “The only way they can do that is to negotiate.”

Read the article.

Source:
Appleby J., Kaiser Health News (5 March 2018). "Pay-to-shop health care incentives gaining traction" [Web blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/05/pay-to-shop-health-care-incentives-gaining-tractio/


Ahead of the Midterms, Voters across Parties See Costs as their Top Health Care Concern

From Kaiser Health News is this poll deciphering where the public sits ahead of Midterms. What is there top healthcare concern? Costs. Get all the information in this article.


At a time when the Trump Administration is encouraging state efforts to revamp their Medicaid programs through waivers, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds the public splits on whether the reason behind proposals to impose work requirements on some low-income Medicaid beneficiaries is to lift people out of poverty or to reduce spending.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in January provided new guidance to states and has since approved such waivers in two states (Kentucky and Indiana). Eight other states have pending requests

When asked the goal of work requirements, four in 10 (41%)  say it is to reduce government spending by limiting the people enrolled in the program, while a third (33%) say it is to lift people out of poverty as proponents say.

While larger shares of Democrats and independents say the reason is to cut costs, Republicans are more divided, with roughly equal shares saying it is to lift people out of poverty (42%) as to reduce government spending (40%). People living in the 10 states that have approved or pending work requirement waivers are similarly divided, with near-equal shares saying the goal is to lift people out of poverty (37%) as to reduce government spending (36%). This holds true even when controlling for other demographic variables including party identification and income.

feb-poll-chart-1.png

In addition to work requirements, five states are currently seeking Medicaid waivers to impose lifetime limits on the benefits that non-disabled adults could receive under the Medicaid program. The poll finds the public skeptical of such a shift, with two thirds (66%) saying Medicaid should be available to low-income people as long as they qualify, twice the share (33%) as say it should only provide temporary help for a limited time.

Substantial majorities of Democrats (84%) and independents (64%) say Medicaid should be available without lifetime limits, while Republicans are divided with similar shares favoring time limits (51%) and opposing them (47%).

These views may reflect people’s personal experiences with Medicaid and the generally positive views the public has toward the current program, which provides health coverage and long-term care to tens of millions of low-income adults and children nationally.

Seven in 10 Americans report a personal connection to Medicaid at some point in their lives – either directly through their own health insurance coverage (32%) or their child being covered (9%), or indirectly through a friend or other family member (29%).

Three in four (74%) hold favorable views of Medicaid, including significant majorities of Democrats (83%), independents (74%) and Republicans (65%). About half (52%) of the public say the current Medicaid program is working well for low-income enrollees, while about a third (32%) say it is not working well.

Most Residents of Non-Expansion States Favor Medicaid Expansion to Cover More Low-Income People

Under the Affordable Care Act, most states expanded their Medicaid programs to cover more low-income adults. In the 18 states that have not done so, a majority (56%) say that their state should expand Medicaid to cover more low-income adults, while nearly four in 10 (37%) say their state should keep Medicaid as it is today.

Slightly more than half of Republicans living in the 18 non-expansion states (all of which have either Republican governors, Republican-controlled legislatures or both) say their state should keep Medicaid as it is today (54%) while four in 10 (39%) say their state should expand their Medicaid program.

Favorable Views of the ACA Reach New High in More Than 80 KFF Polls

The poll finds 54 percent of the public now holds a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act, the highest share recorded in more than 80 KFF polls since the law’s enactment in 2010. This reflects a slight increase in favorable views since January (50%), while unfavorable views held steady at 42 percent.

The shift toward more positive views comes primarily from independents (55% view the ACA favorably this month, up slightly from 48% in January).

feb-poll-chart-2.png

Public Remains Confused about Repeal of the ACA’s Individual Mandate

The poll also probes the public’s awareness about the repeal of the ACA’s requirement that nearly all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine, commonly known as the individual mandate. The tax legislation enacted in December 2017 eliminated this requirement beginning in 2019.

About four in 10 people (41%) are aware that Congress repealed the individual mandate, a slight increase from January, when 36 percent were aware of the provision’s repeal.

However, misunderstandings persist. Most (61%) of the public is either unaware that the requirement has been repealed (40%) or is aware of its repeal but mistakenly believes the requirement will not be in effect during 2018 (21%). Few (13%) are both aware that it has been repealed and that it remains in effect for this year.

Costs are Voters’ Top Health Care Concern ahead of the 2018 Midterm Elections

Looking ahead to this year’s midterm elections, the poll finds Democratic, Republican and independent voters most often cite costs as the health care issue that they most want candidates to address.

When asked to say in their own words what health care issue that they most want candidates to discuss, more than twice as many voters mention health care costs (22%) as any other issue, including repealing or opposing the Affordable Care Act (7%).  Costs are the clear top issue for Democrats (16%) and independents (25%), and one of the top issues for Republicans (22%) followed by repealing or opposing the ACA (17%).

Designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poll was conducted from February 15-20, 2018 among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of 1,193 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (422) and cell phone (771). The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Read the article.

Source:
 Kaiser Family Foundation (1 March 2018). "Poll: Public Mixed on Whether Medicaid Work Requirements Are More to Cut Spending or to Lift People Up; Most Do Not Support Lifetime Limits on Benefits" [Web Poll Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.kff.org/medicaid/press-release/poll-public-mixed-medicaid-work-requirements-more-to-cut-spending-lift-people-up-most-do-not-support-lifetime-limits/

Health prices to outpace inflation for first time since 2010

Since 2010, our health prices have stayed in pace or below inflation. For the first time since then, they're expected be much, much more. Get the details in this article from Employee Benefit Advisor.


The growth in U.S. healthcare prices is projected to outpace economy-wide inflation for the first time since 2010, the second report in a week to signal the end of a long stretch of restrained medical increases.

This year, price increases for personal health expenditures are projected to rise 2.2%, compared with 1.9% for overall inflation, according to a report released Wednesday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The findings confirmed a recent analysis warning that the U.S. could be at the cusp of a return to higher medical inflation.

Health spending is determined by the price of goods and services, as well as how much health care people use. In recent years, increases in health spending have been driven by volume, as millions more people gained insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. While high-cost drugs have made headlines, overall price hikes have been historically low, increasing by an average of 1.1% annually between 2014 and 2016.

Those trends are projected to reverse. Government actuaries expect the number of people without health insurance to increase slightly after Republicans lifted the ACA’s penalty for going uninsured late last year. Medical price growth, meanwhile, will rebound, “in part reflecting more rapid growth in healthcare workers’ wages,” the report said.

 
Bloomberg

Healthcare inflation has been partly restrained by limits on how much Medicare pays hospitals and physicians under the ACA and other legislation, combined with overall slow growth in prices throughout the economy.

In recent days, concerns about higher-than-expected inflation have rattled stock markets and pushed up Treasury yields. Investors feared that a tightening labor market and rising wages could push up prices and spur the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than anticipated to keep the economy from overheating.

Total health spending is projected to increase by 5.3% to about $3.7 trillion in 2018, according to the CMS report, and the growth will average 5.5% per year over the next decade. While that’s still faster than the overall rate of economic growth, it’s an improvement from past decades. Between 1990 and 2007, annual health spending increased by 7.3% per year.

Read the original article here.

Source:
Bloomberg News (20 February 2018). "Health prices to outpace inflation for first time since 2010" [Web Blog Post].Retrieved from address https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/articles/health-prices-to-outpace-inflation-for-first-time-since-2010?feed=00000152-175f-d933-a573-ff5f3f230000

National ACA Marketplace Signups Dipped a Modest 3.7 Percent This Year

In this article from Kaiser Family Foundation, we are going to take a brief look at the ACA sign-ups this year.


Overall ACA marketplace signups for 2018 dropped by 3.7 percent compared to last year’s enrollment period, a new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds.

11,760,533 people signed up for 2018 health insurance coverage on the ACA individual marketplaces, amid steep reductions in federal funding for outreach and navigators, an enrollment period half as long, and a climate of political uncertainty surrounding the law. The federal government also terminated cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers in advance of the open enrollment period, leading to increases in premiums but also increased premium subsidies for many consumers that in some cases led to reductions in what they had to pay for coverage.

As a group, the 15 states plus the District of Columbia with state-based marketplaces, including those using the Healthcare.gov enrollment platform, exceeded last year’s totals this year by .2 percent, while the 34 states that relied on the federal healthcare.gov marketplace saw total signups drop by about 5.3 percent. State-based marketplaces control their own funding for outreach and consumer assistance.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia exceeded 2017 signups in 2018 – eight of these were state-based marketplaces, three were state-based marketplaces using the Healthcare.gov enrollment platform (KY, NV, and OR), and five were federal Healthcare.gov marketplaces.

Rhode Island (12.1%), Kentucky (10.4%), and Washington State (7.6%) saw the largest share increases in signups, while Louisiana (-23.5%), West Virginia (-19.5%), and Arizona (-15.6%) had the largest drop in shares of signups.

Read the original article here.

Source:
Kaiser Family Foundation (7 February 2018). "National ACA Marketplace Signups Dipped a Modest 3.7 Percent This Year" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.kff.org/health-reform/press-release/national-aca-marketplace-signups-dipped-a-modest-3-7-percent-this-year/

Algorithmic Bias – What is the Role of HR?

How should HR professionals deal with the forthcoming algorithmic bias issue? Find out in this article.


Merriam-Webster defines ‘algorithm’ as step-by-step procedure for solving a problem…In an analog world, ask anyone to jot down a step-by-step procedure to solve a problem – and it will be subject to bias, perspective, tacit knowledge, and a diverse viewpoint. Computer algorithms, coded by humans, will obviously contain similar biases.

The challenge before us is that with Moore’s Law, cloud computing, big data, and machine learning, these algorithms are evolving, increasing in complexity, and these algorithmic biases are more difficult to detect – “the idea that artificially intelligent software…often turns out to perpetuate social bias.”

Algorithmic bias is shaping up to be a major societal issue at a critical moment in the evolution of machine learning and AI. If the bias lurking inside the algorithms that make ever-more-important decisions goes unrecognized and unchecked, it could have serious negative consequences, especially for poorer communities and minorities.”What is the role of HR in reviewing these rules? What is the role of HR in reviewing algorithms and code? What questions to ask?

In December 2017, New York City passed a bill to address algorithmic discrimination.Some interesting text of the bill, “a procedure for addressing instances in which a person is harmed by an agency automated decision system if any such system is found to disproportionately impact persons;” and “making information publicly available that, for each agency automated decision system, will allow the public to meaningfully assess how such system functions and is used by the city, including making technical information about such system publicly available where appropriate;”

Big data, AI, and machine learning will put a new forward thinking ethical burden on the creators of this technology, and on the HR professionals that support them. Other examples include Google Photos incorrect labeling or Nikon’s facial detection. While none of these are intentional or malicious, they can be offensive, and the ethical standards need to be vetted and reviewed. This is a new area for HR professionals, and it’s not easy.

As Nicholas Diakopoulos suggests, “We’re now operating in a world where automated algorithms make impactful decisions that can and do amplify the power of business and government. As algorithms come to regulate society and perhaps even implement law directly, we should proceed with caution and think carefully about how we choose to regulate them back.”

The ethical landscape for HR professionals is changing rapidly.

Read more.

Source:

Smith R. (15 February 2018). "Algorithmic Bias – What is the Role of HR?" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://blog.shrm.org/blog/algorithmic-bias-what-is-the-role-of-hr

Tax Law Fuels Changes to Benefits and Compensation Programs

What changes will your employee benefits embark on with The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed? This article from Employee Benefit Advisor touches on the topic.


The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is fueling changes to corporate America’s employee benefits, compensation and executive pay programs, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson.

Of 333 large and midsize employers who responded, 49% are considering making a change to at least one of these programs either this year or next.

“The tax reform law is creating economic opportunity to invest in their people programs,” says John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. “While a significant number have already announced changes to some of their programs, the majority of employers are proceeding to determine which changes will have the highest impact and generate the greatest value.”

The most common changes organizations have made or are planning or considering include expanding personal financial planning, increasing 401(k) contributions and increasing or accelerating pension plan contributions.

Beth Ashmore, the senior consultant for retirement risk management at Willis Towers Watson, says when it comes to expanding personal financial planning and increasing 401(k) contributions, for an employer, the value of making adjustments in those areas is to ensure employees they are going to be taken care of.

“Whenever any employer is thinking about making a change in total rewards, they need to be thinking about it from the perspective of the compensation as the benefit,” Ashmore says. “What is the best value and impact I can make for my employees?”

As for increasing or accelerating pension plan contributions, Ashmore says with the tax law change the majority of employers have a short-term opportunity to make a pension contribution and potentially deduct at a higher tax rate at the beginning of 2018. “Going forward, that tax deduction will be less for a lot of employers under the new tax law,” Ashmore says.

Other potential changes to benefit programs include increasing the employer healthcare subsidy, reducing or holding flat the employee payroll deduction, or adding a new paid family leave program in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act’s tax credit available for paid leave for certain employees.

Compensation plans

At least 64% of employers are planning to or considering taking action on their broad-based compensation programs, or have already taken action. The most common changes organization have made or are planning include conducting a review of their compensation philosophy, addressing pay-gap issues and introducing a profit-sharing or one-time bonus payout to all employees.

Steve Seelig, executive compensation counsel at Willis Towers Watson, says when it comes to changing compensation philosophy employers should re-evaluate their pay structure to determine if they want to continue to offer the same compensation.

“Employers may want to consider a more fixed compensation — similar to what Netflix started — where the CEO is paid much more salary and less performance-based compensation,” Seelig says.

Many employers answered questions on addressing pay gaps from the perspective of closing a gender pay gap. However, Seelig says employers could also refer to pay gaps between levels within an organization, such as an associate to a supervisor.

“The CEO pay ratio will be disclosed later on this year and employers could take this time as an opportunity to narrow the gaps between positions before the disclosure,” Seelig says.

Read more.

Source:
Olsen C. (28 January 2018). "New tax law fuels changes to benefits and compensation programs" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/new-tax-law-fuels-changes-to-benefits-and-compensation-programs?brief=00000152-1443-d1cc-a5fa-7cfba3c60000

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Tax Cut Spurs Employers to Boost 401(k) Contributions


Following one after the other, large employers including Wal-Mart, Aflac and SunTrust have announced significant compensation and benefits changes and attributed them to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in December.

Experts expect hundreds of other employers to join suit.

A new study from global consulting and advisory firm Willis Towers Watson found that about half of 333 large and mid-sized companies polled plan on making changes to their employee benefits, compensation, total rewards and executive pay programs within the next year.

All told, 66% of employers surveyed have either made changes to their benefits packages or are considering making changes. The most common changes are expanding personal finance planning (34%), increasing 401(k) contributions (26%) and increasing or accelerated pension plan contributions (19%), according to WTW.

About 22% of employers say they plan on addressing pay gap issues — a hot topic in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the public firings of top CEOs, editors and TV anchors, politicians and chefs — as part of a broad-based approach to compensation, according to the report.

tax-cut-401(k) 

“The tax reform law is creating economic opportunity to invest in their people programs,” says John Bremen, managing director of human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. “While a significant number have already announced changes to some of their programs, the majority of employers are proceeding to determine which changes will have the highest impact and generate the greatest value.”

Although the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35%, one expert says the decision of where to place those extra savings is going to vary by employer.

“Clearly you have that situation where there has been a tremendous amount of activity,” says Jack Towarnicky, executive director for Plan Sponsor Council of America. “I haven’t seen a comparable situation in the past where somebody announced a particular change and so many others have moved in the same direction. I think it would be as varied as the enterprises themselves where they deploy any corporate reduction.”

Some companies, such as Boeing, Disney and MidWestOne Bank, announced one-time bonuses and student loan repayment contributions, respectively, but said those decisions were not made with consideration to the tax reform.

The heavy lift of raising retirement benefits

Any changes to a company’s employee benefits plan require analysis and strategy to determine the predicted costs, which is more time-consuming than giving every employee a one-time bonus, Towarnicky says.

“There have been a handful of employers that have announced changes in 401(k) savings plans, but it’s clearly dwarfed by the number of employers that announced one-time bonus payments,” he says. “There is a difference between a one-time action and a change to your 401(k) match. It is reasonably predictable if you’ve got a match and you’re going to increase it.”

Employers may also apply those extra savings to voluntary or employer-sponsored benefits, a growing trend for 2018, and wellness initiatives that transcend the benefits package.

Companies with larger, campus-like office buildings are beginning to invest in bike trails around the area and ergonomic work stations, says Catherine O’Neill, senior healthcare consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

Employers are “trying to blend their work environment with their benefits strategy or wellness strategy to make it more successful,” O’Neill says.

While the changes will remain to be seen, Towarnicky warns employers faced with reinvesting their tax savings that those rates may not remain in effect indefinitely.

“Too many times, particularly when it comes to retirement, people develop expectations,” he says. “Any reductions [to benefits or compensation] have a negative impact on employee relations.”

Read more.

Source:
Eisenburg A. (28 January 2018). "Tax cut spurs employers to boost 401(k) contributions" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitnews.com/news/tax-cut-spurs-employers-to-boost-401k-contributions?brief=00000152-14a7-d1cc-a5fa-7cffccf00000

CHIP Renewed For Six Years As Congress Votes To Reopen Federal Government

President Donald Trump signed a bill Monday evening that would extend federal funding until Feb. 8, as well as fund the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for the next six years. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)

A brief, partial shutdown of the federal government ended Monday, as the Senate and House approved legislation that would keep federal dollars flowing until Feb. 8, as well as fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for the next six years.

President Donald Trump signed the bill Monday evening.

The CHIP program, which provides coverage to children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance, has been bipartisan since its inception in 1997. But its renewal became a partisan bargaining chip over the past several months.

Funding for CHIP technically expired Oct. 1, although a temporary spending bill in December gave the program $2.85 billion. That was supposed to carry states through March to maintain coverage for an estimated 9 million children, but some states began to run short almost as soon as that bill passed.

The Georgetown University Center for Children and Families estimated that 24 states could face CHIP funding shortfalls by the end of January, putting an estimated 1.7 million children’s coverage at risk in 21 of those states.

Meanwhile, both houses of Congress had been at loggerheads over how to put the program on firmer financial footing.

In October, just days after the program’s funding expired, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bipartisan five-year extension of funding by voice vote. But that bill did not include a way to pay the cost, then estimated at $8.2 billion.

In November, the House passed its own five-year funding bill for the program, but it was largely opposed by Democrats because it would have offset the CHIP funding by making cuts to Medicare and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The reason, explained CBO, is that the landmark tax bill passed in December eliminated the ACA’s individual mandate, which would likely drive up premiums in the individual market. Those higher premiums, in turn, would increase the federal premium subsidies for those with qualifying incomes. As a result, if kids were to lose their CHIP coverage and go onto the individual exchanges instead, the federal premium subsidies would cost more than their CHIP coverage.

Driving that point home, on Jan. 11, CBO Director Keith Hall wrote to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) that renewing CHIP funding for 10 years rather than five would save the federal government money. “The agencies estimate that enacting such legislation would decrease the deficit by $6.0 billion over the 2018-2027 period,” the letter said.

That made it easier for Republicans to include the CHIP funding in the latest spending bill. But it infuriated Democrats, who had vowed not to vote for another short-term spending bill until Congress dealt with the issue of immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents.

Republicans, said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday, “were using the 10 million kids on CHIP, holding them as hostage for the 800,000 kids who were Dreamers. Kids against kids. Innocent kids against innocent kids. That’s no way to operate in this country.”

Republicans, however, said it was the opposite — that Democrats were holding CHIP hostage by not voting for the spending bill. “There is no reason for my colleagues to pit their righteous crusade on immigration against their righteous crusade for CHIP,” said Hatch. “This is simply a matter of priorities.”

The CHIP renewal was not the only health-related change in the temporary spending bill. The measure also delays the collection of several unpopular taxes that raise revenues to pay for the ACA’s benefits. The taxes being delayed include ones on medical device makers, health insurers and high-benefit “Cadillac” health plans.

The bill does not, however, extend funding for Community Health Centers, another bipartisan program whose funding is running out. That will have to wait for another bill.

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Source:
Rovner J. (22 January 2018). "CHIP Renewed For Six Years As Congress Votes To Reopen Federal Government" [Web blog post]. Retrieved from address https://khn.org/news/chip-renewed-for-six-years-as-congress-votes-to-reopen-federal-government/

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HHS Nominee Vows To Tackle High Drug Costs, Despite His Ties To Industry

What is President Trump’s solution for fighting high drug prices? From Kaiser Health News, check out this article on the new Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee.


Senate Democrats on Tuesday pressed President Donald Trump’s nominee for the top health post to explain how he would fight skyrocketing drug prices — demanding to know why they should trust him to lower costs since he did not do so while running a major pharmaceutical company.

Alex M. Azar II, the former president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Trump’s pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, presented himself as a “problem solver” eager to fix a poorly structured health care system during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Azar said addressing drug costs would be among his top priorities.

But armed with charts showing how some of Eli Lilly’s drug prices had doubled on Azar’s watch, Democrats argued Azar was part of the problem. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the committee’s top Democrat, said Azar had never authorized a decrease in a drug price as a pharmaceutical executive.

“The system is broken,” Wyden said. “Mr. Azar was a part of that system.”

Azar countered that the nation’s pharmaceutical drug system is structured to encourage companies to raise prices, a problem he said he would work to fix as head of HHS.

“I don’t know that there is any drug price of a brand-new product that has ever gone down from any company on any drug in the United States, because every incentive in this system is towards higher prices, and that is where we can do things together, working as the government to get at this,” he said. “No one company is going to fix that system.”

Azar’s confirmation hearing Tuesday was his second appearance before senators as the nominee to lead HHS. In November, he faced similar questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee during a courtesy hearing.

If confirmed, Azar would succeed Tom Price, Trump’s first health secretary, who resigned in September amid criticism over his frequent use of taxpayer-paid charter flights. A former Republican congressman who was a dedicated opponent of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Price had a frosty relationship with Democrats in Congress as he worked with Republicans to try to undo the law.

Price and the Trump administration often turned to regulations and executive orders to undermine the Affordable Care Act, since Republicans in Congress repeatedly failed to enact a repeal. “Repeal and replace” has been the president’s mantra.

But at the hearing, Azar was circumspect about his approach, noting that his job would be to work under existing law. “The Affordable Care Act is there,” he said, adding that it would fall to him to make it work “as best as it possibly can.”

Senate Republicans touted Azar’s nearly six years working for the department under President George W. Bush, including two years as a deputy secretary. Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) praised Azar’s “extraordinary résumé,” adding that, among HHS nominees, he was “probably the most qualified I’ve seen in my whole term in the United States Senate.” Hatch, who is the longest-serving Republican senator in history, has been a senator for more than 40 years.

In addition to drug costs, Azar vowed to focus on the nation’s growing opioid crisis, calling for “aggressive prevention, education, regulatory and enforcement efforts to stop overprescribing and overuse,” as well as “compassionate treatment” for those suffering from addiction.

Pressed about Republican plans to cut entitlement spending to compensate for budget shortfalls, Azar said he was “not aware” of support within the Trump administration for such cuts.

“The president has stated his opposition to cuts to Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security,” Azar said. “He said that in the campaign, and I believe he has remained steadfast in his views on that.”

But Democrats pushed back, pointing out that Trump had proposed Medicaid cuts in his budget request last year. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said such cuts would hurt those receiving treatment for opioid addiction.

“What happens to these people?” he said.

Despite such Democratic criticism, Azar is likely to be confirmed when the full Senate votes on his nomination. An HHS spokesman Tuesday pointed reporters to an editorial in STAT supporting Azar, written by former Senate majority leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle — a Republican and a Democrat. “We need a person of integrity and competence at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services,” they wrote. “The good news is that President Trump has nominated just such a person, Alex Azar.”

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