Friday, February 27, 2009

Tip of the Day: Prepare (quickly!) for COBRA changes

March 1 is literally around the corner -- the date when, in compliance with the new stimulus law, the government will begin a nine-month, 65% COBRA subsidy for laid-off workers.

Employers, however, have to pay the subsidy upfront, which means big changes for how they're accustomed to administering and overseeing COBRA.

“Employers will get the money back, but have to give the government a short-term loan,” says Jim Edholm, president of Business Benefits Insurance in Andover, Mass. “Employers have to get ready now to start administering the subsidy, which starts [this Sunday],” he says.

To comply with the new normal regarding COBRA -- the law that extends health insurance benefits for laid-off workers -- employers must:

* Pay the 65% to the government and then deduct that as a credit against payroll and income taxes withheld from employees.
* Reach out to employees who both did and did not elect to take COBRA upon termination, back to Sept. 1, 2008.
* Allow for a special "open enrollment" for ex-employees who are eligible for COBRA but didn’t take it. This lets them join at 35% of the cost.

Overheard @: I tweet, therefore I am

Between EBN's Web site, podcast series, Facebook page, Twitter news feed and blog, you may think we've got the Internet blanketed. But no! I found yet another corner of the Web to stick my nose into.

Although you still can (and should!) follow EBN on Twitter to get all the news that fits 140 characters, you now also can get Twitter updates from yours truly at Sign on and get my comments on the benefits news of the day, sneak peeks on upcoming issues, current issue highlights and more. You also can post questions to me that I'll answer online. Looking forward to seeing you around the twitterverse!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Overheard @: Health care stakeholders comment on Obama budget

Following this morning's announcement of President Obama's budget proposals, which make significant investments in health care reform, benefits experts offered their opinions:

Tracey Moorhead, president of DMAA, lauded the budget for channeling "health care dollars to where they are needed most: prevention and care strategies shown to create value and improve outcomes. His plan also recognizes the basic need to help the uninsured and underinsured maintain health status, rather than become costly victims of chronic illness."

Karen Ignagni, AHIP president and CEO also released a favorable statement, saying, “Today’s budget submission sends a signal to the American people that this Administration is serious about prioritizing health care. We applaud the president for laying out a bold framework and setting aside significant resources to put our nation on a path towards comprehensive health care reform, which is a goal that has eluded our country for more than a century." (Click here to read the full statement.)

Tip of the Day: Submit your health care vision

Seeing the health care reform proposals coming from Congress and states, thinking, "I could do better"? Now's your chance to show it.

The Society of Actuaries is calling for submissions in its essay contest, Visions for the Future of the U.S. Health Care System.

Essays of up to 1,500 words may either address the system as a whole or focus on particular aspects. Examples of areas that might be covered include the following (suggestions are not meant to restrict potential ideas):
* The Interplay of System Stakeholders
* Future Role of the Employer
* Benefits of Information Technology
* Impact of Advances in Medical Technology
* Prevention, Wellness and Disease Management Programs
* Quality and Efficiency of Care
* Medical Malpractice and Other Health–Related Liability Issues
* Number and Growth of the Uninsured and Underinsured
* Health and Enterprise Risk Management

Essays are due by March 13. Good luck!

News You Can Use: Obama budget also would mandate auto enrollment, expand saver's credit

Among the proposals in President Barack Obama's budget, unveiled this morning, is a measure to expand retirement plans by requiring employers that do not have such a plan to auto-enroll workers into an IRA, and modifying the existing Saver’s Credit to provide a 50% match on the first $1,000 of retirement savings for families that earn less than $65,000. The credit would be fully refundable to ensure that savings incentives are fair to all workers.

What is your opinion of these proposals and their potential effect on both retirement plans and retirement savings? Ready, set, comment!

News You Can Use: Obama budget puts $634B down payment on health care reform

President Obama this morning unveiled his first budget, which includes a $634 billion down payment on achieving universal health care for Americans.

Obama says increasing taxes on the wealthy, cutting wasteful Medicare spending and eliminating certain government subsidies will finance the plan. According to the Associated Press, among the proposed Medicare cuts are curbing payments to insurers serving older Americans and charging wealthier beneficiaries more for the program' s prescription coverage.

However, AP reports, the $634 billion is a little more than half the money needed to insure all Americans, including the some 48 million currently living in the United States without coverage. The nation currently spends more than $2 trillion on health care.

What do you think of the early details -- sketchy though they may be -- of the president's health care budget proposal? Comment and let me know.

Yay or Nay?: Delta Dental is No. 1

So take this with a grain of salt here everyone, because the survey data came from Delta Dental themselves, but a press release hit my inbox recently declaring the dental benefits provider is No. 1 among consumers, dentists, brokers and benefits decisionmakers.

According to the survey, Delta Dental outperforms the competition on all attributes of importance to benefits decisionmakers who consider the brand three times more frequently than its competitors. Delta Dental holds a significant advantage with benefits decision makers in terms of brand awareness, reputation, retention, and market share. Among benefits decision makers, Delta Dental possesses more brand advocates than any other competitor.

Benefits decision makers with Delta Dental benefits identify the following attributes as most important: 1) customer service; 2) best value; 3) a company you trust; 4) fast claims processing; 5) easy to administer; 6) many dentists; 7) easy to use; 8) quality care; 9) friendly 1-800; and 10) rate stability.

So what do you think? Do you work with Delta Dental, and if so, is it in fact No. 1? Yay or nay?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tip of the Day: DB sponsors, go to Plan B

Okay, so maybe most pension plan sponsors are already on Plan Q in terms of how to stop the blood-letting in their plans due to the economic crisis, but a recent report by Associate Editor Lydell Bridgeford on highlights analysis from Watson Wyatt sponsors may want to consider. Although it's far from ideal, Alan Glickstein, senior retirement consultant at Watson Wyatt, says employers may need to rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak.

"Changes in funded status are wreaking havoc with the projections companies have made," says Glickstein. "Large and unexpected pension contributions will require companies to divert funds they had earmarked for other business activities into their pension plans precisely when they can least afford it."

Meanwhile, 75% of U.S. pension plan sponsors report that their organizations have already transferred assets out of equities and into bonds or alternatives, according to a survey by SEI's Institutional Group, an asset management firm. The survey questioned 157 American and international pension executives who oversee pensions ranging from $30 million to more than $5 billion in assets.

News You Can Use: Obama: Health care reform ‘will not wait another year’

President Barack Obama last night reaffirmed his priority to provide universal health coverage and reduce health insurance costs, declaring before the joint session of Congress that "health-care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

For the most part, the health insurance community’s reaction appears to be supportive, yet cautious. A statement from America’s Health Insurance Plans concurs that insurers “strongly agree that comprehensive health care reform cannot wait. We will continue to offer workable solutions to ensure that all Americans have quality, affordable health care."

Other health care experts say the president needs to offer more concrete details on his plans.“This was a solid commitment to changing health care, but the part on how you solve the health-care cost puzzle while covering everyone is still missing,” Paul Keckley, director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg. “He’s got to start giving specifics.”

Labor leaders appear more solidly aligned with Obama. Doug Sizemore, the executive secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO Labor Council in Cincinnati, said, "We see [the effects of health insurance costs] every time we go to the bargaining table with an employer - businesses dealing with the rising costs of providing health care to workers and putting those costs on the backs of the workers. There has got to be a better way. The president gets that."

Naturally, however, Republican lawmakers are among Obama’s critics. In a staunch rebuttal to the president, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) drew his party’s line in the sand. “We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage, [but] we oppose universal government-run health care. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients – not by government bureaucrats.”

But we know who’s opinion in this debate matters most – yours. As employers will shoulder much of the responsibility and the cost for whatever proposals ultimately become law, we want to hear what you think. Comment and let us know.

News You Can Use: Looking out for the little guy

Providing personal and financial relief to working families is a concept that's grown in popularity, from President Obama on down -- even paving the way for several state mandates regarding work-life benefits like paid sick and family leave.

However, small businesses have unique concerns about such mandates and other legislative efforts to help working families, and to help policymakers better understand the small business perspective, the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College has released a new research mini-brief, "Work-Family Information on Small Businesses."

The mini-brief summarizes the small business viewpoint on work-family legislation, underscoring both the concerns of and benefits to small businesses. The mini-brief also provides statistics, suggested readings, and websites with more information.

“Small businesses are often lumped together with all businesses, and their unique strengths and limitations are not commonly recognized,” comments Julie Schwartz Weber, author of the mini-brief and Sloan Network policy specialist. “With 80% of all U.S. businesses having 20 or fewer employees, it is vital that legislators and advocates have a clear picture of how small businesses approach work and family issues. These new resources on small businesses are intended to provide that perspective.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tip of the Day: Get up to speed on the costs and consequences of binge eating

You may not know it -- I didn't, until I did some digging -- but binge eating disorder is a huge (no pun intended) health issue in the United States. Research shows it's the most common eating problem - affecting 6 million people in the U.S. each year and costs $33 million a year in lost productivity, health care, and medical expenses.

To help educate employers and other health care stakeholders, and mark National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 22-28), Health Media invites you to participate in a free web seminar on binge eating disorder, Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. EST.

This one-hour presentation will be hosted by Dr. Richard Bedrosian, Ph.D., director of Behavioral Health for HealthMedia, Inc. and Chevese Turner, CEO and founder of the Binge Eating Disorder Association.

Read more from EBN on binge eating and other costs and consequences of obesity in our February issue.

Wish You Were Here: Kraft rebrands, puts more emphasis on values

I'm not sure if it's due to the recession, but it seems many big-name companies are rebranding -- some to generally positive reviews, like Pepsi, and others not so much like Tropicana orange juice (which, strangely, is owned by PepsiCo). Kraft Foods also is rebranding, unveiling a new logo (seen here) and slogan, "Make today delicious."

The new launch seeks to re-emphasize the company's values:
* We inspire trust.
* We act like owners.
* We keep it simple.
* We are open and inclusive.
* We tell it like it is.
* We lead from the head and the heart.
* We discuss. We decide. We deliver.

It got me thinking: If you could rebrand your company with a new logo and slogan, what would it be? Comment and let me know.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tip of the Day: Find just the right touch

We always hear "one size doesn't fit all" regarding benefit plans, but research reported in the February EBN is showing the same is true for wellness interventions.

Research shows that more than 125 million Americans suffer from at least one chronic illness, while 75 million have two or more. Additionally, those with three or more chronic diseases represent virtually all growth in health care spending since 1987, according to Health Management Associates.

In the face of both rising costs and number of workers suffering from diseases, employers have adopted wellness and disease management strategies to better target workers with chronic conditions, such as online health coaching, 24/7 nurse lines and combinations of these and other high-touch and high-tech interventions.

Recently, HMA examined which types of interventions were most successful in reducing costs for specific diseases, to benefit employers as they make decisions on how and where to target valuable wellness and disease management dollars. Their findings regarding three conditions - asthma, diabetes and mental illness - are outlined here.

Yay or Nay: Does coordination of care work?

An interesting and somewhat shocking Wall Street Journal report cites research from the Journal of the American Medical Association that finds coordination of care is ineffective at containing health care costs.

The model generally involves nurses or other medical professionals serving as the linchpin between physicians, other service providers and patients -- with the belief that keeping everyone on the same page regarding patient care and education would result in lower costs from reducing duplicative efforts and reduced hospitalizations due to conflicting treatment regimens.

JAMA's study shows that in 15 random trials of care-coordination programs, only two -- yes, two -- showed significant differences in hospitalizations between those whose care was coordinated and a control group. Even worse, one of the two actually posted more hospitalizations. The dagger: none of the programs posted any savings.

Having devoted no small amount of ink in EBN to the effectiveness of the care coordination model, I was truly surprised to read this data. What about you? What is your view of care coordination? Is it effective -- yay or nay?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tip of the Day: Cash is the biggest carrot

I'm not a scientist, and I could tell you that cash is king. If you want someone to do/not do something, paying them is a good way to get the desired result.

However, for you empirical types, actual scientists have collected data on the effectiveness of cash as an incentive -- specifically when getting employees to quit smoking.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports a study published in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found smokers who were paid to quit succeeded far more often than those who got no cash reward.

Tracking 878 smokers who lit up an average of a pack of cigarettes a day, one group received up to $750 to quit, spreading out payments to encourage them to stick with it. The poor control group got bupkus.

The nonsurprising result? Ta-da: 14.7% of the folks in the paid group stopped smoking within the first year, compared with 5% of nonpaid group. And after 15 or 18 months, 9.4% in the paid group were still smoke-free, compared with 3.6% of the nonpaid group.

So perhaps the best use of wellness dollars is not in the program itself, but in the incentives? What do you think? How can employers get the best return on their wellness investments? Comment and let me know.

Overheard @: Sens. not giving up on fee disclosure

Bless their hearts, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) have reintroduced legislation, the Harkin/Kohl Defined Contribution Fee Disclosure Act of 2009, that would require 401(k) plan providers to clearly disclose all of the fees they charge, my colleagues at Money Management Executive report.

“It is absurd that millions of Americans rely on 401(k) plans for their retirement security and yet they aren’t told what fees they are paying to maintain these accounts,” Harkin said. “This bill will shed light on the 401(k) selection process and give Americans more control over their retirement future. In an economy with more and more defined benefit plans being slashed or frozen every day, it is vital that employees have access to all the information they need to maximize their retirement savings.”

Kohl added: “I believe there is a basic right for consumers to clearly know how much products and services are costing them. Disclosure is especially important in the case of 401(k)s, as the slightest difference in fees can translate into a staggering depletion in savings, greatly affecting one’s ability to build a secure retirement.”

The disclosure is also meant to help employers better assess and select 401(k) plans. Further, it would spell out all financial relationships between all of the parties running the plan, so that investors can spot conflicts of interest.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tip of the Day: Check out HHS's new HIPAA site

I know, I know -- there's nothing you'd rather do than bone up on HIPAA. But it remains one of the nation's thorniest benefits-related laws, and the more information the better, yes?

The revamped site features information about:
* The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
* Privacy provisions in the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act.

The site also offers consumers info about:
* Medical records.
* Personal representatives.
* Health information in the workplace.
* Court orders and subpoenas.
* Notices of privacy breaches.

Click here to visit the site.

News You Can Use: New grads will work for ... well, work

Although employers have maintained recruiting college graduates for full-time hire, companies are beginning to discover that hiring new grads as interns can yield a high return in the form of cheap -- ahem, cost effective -- labor.

According to a recent study by Intern Bridge, a Massachusetts-based college recruiting consulting firm, 70% of students would accept less pay if it meant a more auspicious work experience.

"In the past, companies hosted internship programs as a recruiting tool. Organizations are quickly realizing that internships can also ease their workforce dilemmas in a tough economy,” maintains Intern Bridge founder Richard Bottner.

While growth in college recruiting for full-time hires is expected to remain flat in 2009, the use of internships is expected to rise as organizations recognize the advantages to of hiring a newly educated workforce at a reduced cost.

The 2008 study interviewed 42,000 students from 400 universities. --Kathleen Koster

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tip of the Day: Click below for free stuff!

In this economy, free is a word that isn't heard very often, but sure is appreciated. So I knew you'd want to know about the slate of five free forums (say it three times fast) being sponsored by Unum and the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

The forums, which begin in March, cover a wide swath: FMLA changes, stopping the abuse of prescription drugs in the workplace and benefits communications.

“These forums draw hundreds of participants looking for the chance to hear from industry experts on top-of-mind workplace issues,” says Marcia Carruthers, chief executive officer for the Disability Management Employer Coalition. “They are a great resource for information and ideas, especially in this economy of tight budgets and limited travel.”

The forum schedule is:
* March 10: FMLA update -- Application of new regulations.
* April 14: Prescription drugs -- New addictions in the workplace.
* June 9: Cutting through the benefit fog -- Communicating the value.
* Sept. 15: Employer health and productivity roundtable.
* Oct. 13: Ready, set change? Applying the readiness-to-change model at the worksite.

Click here for detailed speaker and registration information.

News You Can Use: Pension funding remains low

As another cringe-worthy sign of the times, a new Mercer data on Fortune 1500 companies show pension plan funded status at the end of Jan was unchanged from Dec., indicating funded status of plans sponsored by the largest U.S. companies remained at 75%.

Don’t hold your breath; it gets worse.

The value of both pension assets and liabilities declined in Jan, reducing the dollar amount of the estimated aggregate deficit to $380 billion from $409 billion at the end of Dec.

A Watson Wyatt survey also released today examined the pension problem over the course of 2008, finding that pension plan funding at the largest U.S. companies had reached historical lows at the end of the year.

Watson Wyatt measured the aggregate data of 450 Fortune 1000 companies, forecasting an average decline of 32% (106% in 2007 to 74% in 2008). This translates to a $445 billion total loss, annihilating a $78 billion surplus in 2007 and leaving these companies with $366 billion deficit to clean up.

Perhaps the only good news is for DC plan sponsors, and only in a misery-loves-company kind of way. --Kathleen Koster

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tip of the Day: Read, watch "I.O.U.S.A."

This month, EBN reports that the trillions of dollars lost in national wealth from collapsing companies, lost jobs and homes, failing banks and sliding stock market as a result of the recession is simply too large for Americans to comprehend -- yet too large for them to ignore either, according to the authors and producers of “I.O.U.S.A.,” the 2008 book and documentary about our national debt and financial failings.

"These numbers are overwhelming for most Americans,” says co-author Addison Wiggin. “The simple fact is, we’ve been successful as a nation for so long that the average citizen doesn’t have a clue what’s happening on Wall Street or in the economy. Fear of gigantic numbers, seemingly indiscernible statistics, debates over theory and partisan bickering only add to the confusion. When people don’t understand something, it’s easier to just dismiss it.”

However, the current economic state is not something employers and employees can dismiss anymore. To help individuals and companies understand what went wrong and where the U.S. economy can go from here, “I.O.U.S.A.” -- both the book and film -- illustrates the financial crises in an easy-to-understand way by examining four deficits before the nation: the budget deficit, personal savings deficit, trade deficit and leadership deficit.

Called by Reuters “an ‘Inconvenient Truth’ for the U.S. economy,” Wiggin hopes the book and film will help Americans “rethink what they expect from their government, and by extension, how they plan for their own future.”

To order a copy of “I.O.U.S.A.,” or view a 30-minute version of the film, visit

Overheard @: The folks at EBA started a new blog

Innovation breeds innovation around here, and just months after EBN launched the Daily Diversion, my colleagues at Employee Benefit Adviser have launched a blog of their own. Visit to check out their updates and video blog posts. I'll be linking to their content and vice versa, though, so you'll have the best of both worlds.

News You Can Use: Stimulus expands COBRA

U.S. House and Senate leaders reached a deal late last week on a $789 economy-recovery package, which includes $21.4 billion for health insurance assistance for laid-off workers. COBRA-eligible workers would receive a 60% subsidy toward their COBRA premiums for nine months.

The House-Senate conference report on the stimulus plan also states that individuals with annual incomes over $125,000 (for singles) or $250,000 (for couples) would not be eligible for the COBRA subsidy. The Treasury Department would pay the subsidy and allow employers that administer COBRA benefits to receive a credit on payroll taxes.

Currently, COBRA laws require employers with more than 20 workers to allow former employees to retain their health insurance for up to 18 months. The worker pays the full COBRA premium and a 2% administrative fee. Most employers outsource COBRA administration to a third-party vendor.

Benefits experts explain that, although the government and the employee are footing the COBRA premiums, the worker still remains part of the employer's group health plan, which means that claims incurred by that individual could have an effect on the group's premium rates down the road.

"In exchange for this windfall, some employers would like to remove all COBRA member claims from the employer plans, thus establishing a new pool representative of this risk only, and ultimately be able to set rates and benefits based on the experience of the pool," says Robert Nuzzi, senior vice president of employee benefits at Cook, Hall & Hyde, a New York-based employee benefits and risk management services firm.

Despite the government subsides, COBRA coverage is still a costly feature for unemployed people, says Carl Mowery, director of the compensation and benefits practice at SMART, a HR consulting firm. For that reason, "it would seem more appropriate to have health care benefits associated with unemployment link to unemployment benefits," he asserts. --EBN Industry inBrief

Friday, February 13, 2009

News You Can Use: Recession brings back that loving feeling

Cupid -- with a little help from the economy -- appears to have hit his mark this Valentine's Day, as 78% of American workers love their job more than they did before entering the recession, reports a recent Workplace Insights survey from the recruitment and workplace solutions provider, Adecco USA.

"In this economy, everyone is in this together, especially around Valentine's Day. It's a nice moment in time to say 'thank you' — both for employees to say 'thank you' to management and management to their employees," says Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer of Adecco Group North America.

The majority of employees are motivated — 86% do not think loving what you do is less important because of a dreary economy. Nevertheless, over half (54%) of respondents would have chosen another career path knowing what they know now, as cited by the New York-based company.

The survey goes on to examine the confidence and appreciation workers have in and for their employers.

Forty-one percent say they arrive at work with feelings of appreciation, outnumbering those who feel indifferent (26%) and those who are charged to get started (21%). Only a small percentage (9%) of workers dread the start of a new work week.

Three out of 10 Gen X employees are anxious about retaining their jobs, compared with 20% of Gen Y workers. However, 28% of Gen Y workers are more willing to work harder and longer hours due to the current economic environment, in comparison to 15% of the Gen X employees.

Do execs still inspire confidence? Well, they certainly aren't improving, as the great majority of workers (90%) have the same or less confidence in their company's executive team as a consequence of the desperate economy. --EBN Industry inBrief

Related EBN coverage:
Don't let employee engagement decline along with the economy

Tip of the Day: Take some time to enjoy the 'View'

No, not the daily chatfest on tv, EBN's new "View from the Andes" column from Karrie Andes, director of HR for Deffenbaugh Industries in Kansas City, and EBN's newest contributing editor. Andes will be running monthly in EBN this year. This month, she details her experience with mandating employee health risk assessments, and the Mr. Grumpy that was a thorn in her side throughout. Click here to read her debut column.

Overheard @: Benefits attorney opposes exec pay cap

While some -- I admit, myself included -- hailed President Obama's recent edict that executives at companies receiving federal bailout money will have their compensation capped at $500,000, not everyone thinks the limits are a good idea.

Perhaps you're thinking, surely I jest? But no, Edward R. Rayner, a partner in the employee benefits and executive compensation practice at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York, says these limits may actually further harm the U.S. financial system.

"While at first glance, this may appear to be an important crackdown on the greed of recent years, the fact that the $500,000 cap only applies to companies accepting U.S. bailout money is a huge issue," Mr. Rayner says. "This opens the door for foreign institutions not subject to these compensation limits to quite easily and relatively cheaply, steal our best financial talent. Once this talent is gone, it will be extremely difficult to get back, and I expect that this will significantly weaken the U.S. financial industry."

Amid the deepest economic recession in decades, with millions jobless, Rayner is opposed to capping the pay of bank execs that are relying on taxpayer dollars to re-stabilize their institutions? What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Rayner? Comment and let me know.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tip of the Day: Size matters (when it comes to GASB 45 compliance)

Small employers have big compliance mandates to contend with to meet the Government Accounting Standards Board Statement 45 rules (better known as GASB 45), which apply to measurement and disclosure of nonpension post-employment benefits. Times are tight enough economically; don't let noncompliance fines break your organization. Click here to read EBN's report on staying on the legal straight and narrow.

News You Can Use: Workers fear losing retirement savings

Employees aren't immune to the news reports of millions of Americans losing trillions of dollars in collective retirement income, and the news that increasing numbers of organizations are freezing their retirement plans, suspending matching contributions or both is heightening anxiety about their futures.

A new survey by Workplace Options finds that 59% of employees are concerned that money from their pensions and 401(k)s won't be there when they need it.

Dean Debnam, Workplace Options CEO says the worry causes a vicious cycle, as layoffs beget financial worries that decrease job performance and put employees in the line of fire for layoffs. "This, coupled with financial worries, can spell disaster for a worker's emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as overall productivity."

Even if your company is suspended its matching contributions -- which I strongly advise against -- or otherwise making retirement plan cutbacks, be sure to communicate with employees in a way that doesn't send them into a tailspin. Click here to listen to our podcast with communications expert Dennis Ackley and read the accompanying article, “Softening the blow of bad benefits news,” in the February EBN.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tip of the Day: RIF on the side of caution -- conduct layoff audits

It's a sign of the times when an entire series of nondiscrimination tests is created to help employers prevent disparities when conducting layoffs ... sigh.

But so it goes. The big-thought thinkers at the Center for Forensic Economic Studies, have developed a series of pre-layoff Chi-square and T tests that analyze employer data to zero in on statistically significant disparities. Employers contemplating reductions in force (RIFs) can avoid or minimize exposure to discrimination claims through these pre-RIF statistical audits.

Audits begin with the same type of statistical review plaintiffs would perform in seeking to make out a prima facie case of discrimination. Using files commonly kept by employers, the RIF plan is tested for possible disparate impact on protected classes.

If such disparities exist, further analyses can be conducted to explain the disparities. Click here to find more information on the audit process and CFES.

News You Can Use: As costs increase, dental utilization decreases

Here's more evidence that cost-cutting can lead to scrimping on important health care services. EBA reports that a in recent Delta Dental Plans Association poll of 900 dental care consumers age 25 and older, 83% of benefit plan participants visit their dentist twice or more a year versus 63% of those who pay for their treatment out of pocket.

While 88% of the respondents received employer-paid dental care, 12% paid for voluntary benefits coverage. One troubling statistic that the nonprofit group noted in its 2008 Community Benefit Annual Report is that there are more than 3,700 locations across the U.S. without enough dental health professionals to help serve an estimated 46 million Americans.

EBN's February report, "Chipped teeth," further explores how cost-cutting and the recession are affecting dental benefits offerings and usage.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tip of the Day: Prepare for new CHIP requirements

President Obama last week signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (CHIP), a law that extends a federal program to provide health insurance to low-income children.

However, the law has implications for employers as well, as it gives states the option to provide a subsidy for employer-sponsored coverage to CHIP-eligible children, if the child's parent elects to receive it.

News You Can Use: Be true to your heart

It's February -- the month for paper hearts, chocolate hearts, candy hearts. However, a report in the Feb. EBN shows too many of us are neglecting the most important heart -- the one in our chest.

Research cited in our report reveals that the risk factors for heart disease and stroke -- the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 killers, and major contributors to disability and health care costs -- are increasing. Among such rising risk factors is high blood pressure.

"If this trend continues," commented AHA President Timothy Gardner, M.D. "death rates could begin to rise again in the years ahead. While we have seen better control of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and tobacco use, we still have much work to do on these risk factors."

And it turns out those all those chocolate hearts this month could help, as research shows eating half a bar of dark chocolate each day may lower high blood pressure.

Click here to read EBN's report on hypertension trends, risks and treatments.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tip of the Day: Make 2009 the Year of the Leader

Is your company doing what it takes to build the next generation of leaders? How do you rank against the Top Companies for Leaders in the world? To find out, register for the 2009 Top Companies for Leaders survey, a joint effort by The RBL Group, Hewitt Associates, and Fortune magazine. Registration runs through April.

The study provides an opportunity for organization's to be recognized for their leader building efforts, as well as valuable intelligence to improve leadership capabilities. All participants receive a complimentary research brief which highlights the global and regional Top Companies' practices, and the opportunity to benchmark against the 2009 Top Companies for Leaders in their region and/or globally at a discount. The Top Companies for Leaders Benchmark is a comprehensive evaluation of your organization's survey results against the Top Companies, and includes hundreds of comparative data points about leadership practices.

Click here to begin the survey.

What do you think it takes to be a top leader in today's workplace? Comment and let me know.

News You Can Use: Don't miss your chance to be a SHRM fellow

The Society for Human Resource Management now is accepting entries for the first-ever Susan R. Meisinger Fellowship recognizing excellence in advancing the human resource profession.

The fellowship will provide up to $10,000 annually for up to two years of graduate study in HR. To be eligible, an HR professional must either be a member of SHRM or hold a professional certification (i.e., PHR, SPHR or GPHR) from the HR Certification Institute. Additionally, the candidate must meet all of the following requirements:

* Earned a minimum GPA of 3.5 overall in his or her undergraduate major based on a four-point grading scale.
* Have at least 10 years of work experience, with a minimum of five years in HR.
* Have been accepted into a qualified graduate program within or outside of the United States.

Awards will be announced in conjunction with SHRM’s Annual Conference and Exposition in New Orleans, June 28-July 1. The deadline to apply is April 1.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tip of the Day: Don't let employee engagement decline along with the economy

As goes the economy, so goes employee engagement it seems, which is not good news for employers. Survey results from Quantum Workplace show 66% of employers saw decreases in employee engagement between 2007 and 2008.

“Employee engagement is measured by the ability and willingness of individuals to exert extra effort for the benefit of the company, their tendency to speak highly of the organization and their intent to stay,” says Greg Harris, president of Quantum Workplace.

Best known as the research firm behind Best Places to Work programs in more than 40 metro areas, Quantum Workplace surveys more than 1.5 million employees among 5,000 companies nationwide. The surveys are conducted at different times of the year, but at the same time of the year in each location.

“In the past, our surveys have shown how employers can significantly influence, if not control, how motivated and satisfied their employees are," Harris says. "But, we couldn’t help but wonder what affect such a significant event beyond employer’s control — an economic crisis — might have on employee feelings and perceptions of their workplaces."

By an almost two-to-one margin (134 to 76), more employers had lower overall employee engagement scores in the fall of 2008 than the fall of 2007. This result is out of the ordinary from trends for the last five years, and strongly suggests that the economy may well be influencing employees’ attitudes about their jobs and workplaces, Harris posits.

However, there still are actionable points for employers. Quantum's analysis outlines five factors distinguished the variation among winners and losers:

1. Setting a clear, compelling direction that empowers each employee.
2. Open and honest communication.
3. Continued focus on career growth and development.
4. Recognizing and rewarding high performance.
5. Employee benefits that demonstrate a strong commitment to employee well-being.

According to Leigh Branham, author of "The Seven Hidden Reasons that Employees Leave," “It may be difficult to implement the five lessons described, but as Winston Churchill said: ‘Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.’ The additional efforts to engage employees, in spite of the economic currents, can garner significant returns.”

“Having a highly engaged workforce certainly doesn’t completely insulate an organization from economic recession. But a more engaged workforce can act as insulation, a buffer if you will, from the effects of the economic downturn,” according to Mark D. Hirschfeld, principal, Goldenrod Consulting, Inc.

Wish You Were Here: Fortune names 2009 'Best' list

One hundred companies now are being flooded with resumes, as Fortune magazine recently revealed its 12th annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Despite a bad economy, some employers are still hiring and offering robust employee benefits.

California-based NetApp topped the list. The information technology firm, which employs about 5,000 workers, saw a 12% job growth rate last year. The company also offers five paid days for volunteer work, $11,390 in adoption assistance and autism coverage.

Fortune also lauded employers with the best benefits for health care, child care, work-life balance, telecommuting, sabbaticals and unusual perks. For example, 15 employers out of the 100 on the list pay 100% of their employees' health care premiums.

Those employers are Boston Consulting Group, Nugget Market, Qualcomm, Shared Technologies, SAS, Whole Foods Market,, Kimley-Horn and Associates, Microsoft, EOG Resources, Rackspace Hosting, NuStar Energy, Stew Leonard's, Lehigh Valley Hospital/Health Network and Perkins Coie.

"At this time when we, like so many institutions, are necessarily focused on dealing with the short-term realities of the economic crisis, this is for us an important reaffirmation of those things that are key to driving ongoing, lasting success -- attracting great people and investing in an environment where they flourish," says Steve Gunby, chairman of North and South America for Boston Consulting Group.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tip of the Day: Make sure employees update their beneficiaries

Although some employees tend to breeze past beneficiary elections, a new Supreme Court ruling may give them pause.

In Kennedy v. Plan Adm. for DuPont Savings, the justices unanimously ruled that a pension plan administrator was in compliance with ERISA when the fund disbursed proceeds to a plan participant's ex-wife, who had waived her rights to the pension in their divorce decree.

"This is a favorable decision for plan administrators. Plan administrators can rely upon the terms of a plan document and do not need to look to various external documents to determine who is entitled to receive a distribution, which in this case was the designated beneficiary," says Carrie Byrnes, a labor attorney in the Chicago office of Bryan Cave LLP.

"Going forward, parties going through divorces should be sure to change beneficiaries, if permitted, after the divorce is final," she adds. Family law attorneys should also be sure to counsel clients to change beneficiaries.

News You Can Use: Retail clinics appeal to younger families

A latte, the new Fall Out Boy CD, something for lunch and oh -- I'll get that cough checked out.

Such "while I'm out" shopping lists could be what's leading more young people to retail clinics than older individuals and families. Also, younger individuals may be less likely to have a primary doctor. Either way, overall, younger families, participants aged 18-34, were more than twice as likely as older families, participants aged 50-64, to have used a retail clinic, according to research by the Commonwealth Fund and the Center for Studying Health System Change. The report also explains that 48% of Americans using retail clinics indicate they had done so for diagnosis and treatment of a new illness or symptom.

"While overall use of retail clinics remains modest, families with unmet medical needs tend to use the clinics more than the rest of the population," says Ha T. Tu, an HSC senior researcher.
About 47% of patients explained that their clinic visit involved a prescription renewal, while less common medical needs included vaccinations, care for an ongoing chronic condition and physical examinations.

"These findings suggest that retail health clinics have the potential to play a role in improving health care delivery, especially primary care," says Dr. Anne-Marie Audet, vice president at the Commonwealth Fund. The research, detailed in the report "Checking Up on Retail-Based Health Clinics: Is the Boom Ending?," represents a national survey of 18,000 people in 9,400 families.

Related EBN coverage:
Retail clinics multiply, regulators step in
Don't mix business and blood pressure

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tip of the Day: Five 401(k) fixes

The Wall Street Journal recently published a list of five ways to fix their 401(k). Easy at that, huh? Read it, and then comment on what tips would be on your list.

Here, I'll start: Create a family budget. This is pretty basic, but has helped my family tremendously. I suspect that many families -- like mine until recently -- don't really know where all of their money is going. Seeing it all in black and white helped us see where we could trim the fat to put toward saving.

Yay or Nay: Does Daschle withdrawal hurt the chances for health care reform?

Wow, what a difference a news cycle makes. In yesterday's EBN inBrief e-newsletter, we featured an item about how optimistic Congressional Democrats were about health care reform.

Barely hours later, former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration to lead the Health and Human Services Department, the lastest among a string of Obama cabinet nominees to be outed with "tax issues."

After the shock of the announcement had rippled from the White House and beyond, out came the handicappers to assess the damage to President Obama's health care agenda.

You all are the best pundits I know on all things benefits-related, so what say you? Does Daschle's withdrawal hurt the chances for health care reform? Yay or Nay?

News You Can Use: Target-date funds falter

Is any retirement vehicle safe? I keep looking, but all I see are returns that are the financial equivalent of auto crash tests where the dummy's body snaps all around then slumps over the wheel. Know what I mean?

Although target-date funds were supposed be set it and forgettable savings vehicles for employee-investors -- pick your dream retirement date and let the fund do the rest -- a recent Wall Street Journal report cites data from Morningstar that show that some 2010 funds have lost as much as 20%. Among other funds, Morningstar examined 275 of them, and found 50 posted more than 38.5% drops in 2008, including the Oppenheimer 2010 fund, that lost 41.3%.


Mark your calendar to check out an EBN report on 2010 funds in our March issue.

What has been your experience with target-date funds? Comment below.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tip of the Day: Make your EAP more than just three letters

An alternately sad and scary article in USA Today shows that even for Americans who are working, the affects of the recession are far-reaching and can't be compartmentalized into separate "work" and "life" boxes.

The newspaper reports increased demand for therapists to help stressed out families with anxiety, depression and physical abuse. For employees, a workplace employee assistance program can provide much-needed help. Most employers now have one, but communication still lags.

A new "Five Minutes With ..." podcast with clinical psychologist Edward Trieber spoke with EBN Managing Editor Leah Shepherd about how employers can best communicate their EAPs and other benefits to help alleviate employee stress. Click here to download the audio.

What programs/policies are in place at your company to help employees with stress? Have you seen an uptick in demand for/requests about these services? Comment below.

More from EBN: Finances running low, stress running high: Employee stress levels rising as economy declines

News You Can Use: E-Verify on hold

E-Verify, a system rule that would require employers to screen workers to ensure their employment eligibility (read: immigration status), has been tabled until May 21 to give new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano time to review it.

I suspect Secretary Napolitano can take all the time she wants/needs, if employers could have their way, as previous EBN reports on E-Verify quotes sources that cites the system's "reliability issues," and even going so far as to call it "unworkable."

E-Verify has drawn resistance -- to put it lightly -- from employers, and last December, the Chamber of Commerce and Society for Human Resource Management filed a lawsuit to block it. So I don't blame Secretary Napolitano for wanting to take some extra time (the rule was set to become effective in just a few weeks, on Feb. 20) to decide the system's fate.

What are your thoughts on E-Verify (like I need to ask)? Comment below.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tip of the Day: Follow seven steps to merger success

Among February's "Five Minutes With ..." podcasts is Managing Editor Leah Shepherd’s interview with Len Gray, the head of the America’s M&A consulting business at Mercer. After you read our report on merger musts in this month's EBN, listen to Gray as he offers further tips for handling benefits during a merger or acquisition.

Overheard @: Ackley advises how to take the bite out of bad news

This month, EBN spent "Five Minutes With ..." Dennis Ackley, president of Missouri-based Ackley Associates. HR/benefit managers are the unfortunate staffers called upon to deliver the news workers never want to hear. To help companies design communication strategies for delivering bad benefits news, Ackley spoke with Associate Editor Lydell Bridgeford to offer several tips for employers to bear in mind. Click here to listen to the FMW podcast and read the accompanying article, “Softening the blow of bad benefits news,” in the February EBN.