Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tip of the Day: Reminder that new CHIP requirements become effective tomorrow

President Obama in February signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (CHIP), extending the federal program to provide health insurance to low-income children and carrying new implications for group health plans, which by the by, become effective tomorrow, April 1.

First, the law authorizes states to subsidize some or all of the costs for employer-sponsored coverage to CHIP-eligible children, if the child's parent elects to receive it. States may give the subsidy directly to employers -- although employers may opt out of such payments -- or as a reimbursement to workers.

Second, employers must allow mid-year enrollment for parents whose children:
* Have lost their CHIP eligibility or and request employer coverage within 60 days of losing CHIP coverage.
* Become eligible for premium assistance under CHIP or Medicaid.

Those are the facts as I see 'em. But I don't profess to be an attorney, so check with your own legal eagles and/or read this alert from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

News You Can Use: Paid-leave legislation introduced in House

Designed to build upon FMLA, four Democratic Reps. Pete Stark (Calif.), George Miller (Calif.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) and Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) last week introduced the Family Leave Insurance Act of 2009, which would provide 12 weeks of paid benefits to workers who need to take time off to care for an ill family member, a new child, or because of their own illness.

“Millions of American workers are all too often put in the position of choosing between getting paid and dealing with an illness or welcoming a new child to the family. Americans shouldn’t have to make that choice," Miller said. "Family-friendly policies like guaranteed paid leave not only help parents balance work and family, but also improve employers’ bottom lines. When workers can take advantage of these family-friendly policies, their employers benefit from increased recruitment and retention rates, decreased absenteeism and improved productivity.”

Maloney added: “There couldn’t be a worse time than during an economic downturn to ask parents to choose between a paycheck and their new child or sick family member. Tough times call for strong supports for working families, like paid family and medical leave."

The legislation will:
* Provide all workers with 12 weeks of paid leave over a 12-month period to care for a new child, provide for an ill family member, treat their own illness, care for a wounded veteran, or deal with the deployment of a family member.
* Provide these benefits through a new trust fund that is financed equally by employers and employees, who will each contribute 0.2% of the employee’s pay (for the average worker, less than $7 a month, sponsors estimate).
* Progressively tier the benefits so that a low-wage worker (earning less than $30,000) will receive full or near full salary replacement, middle income workers ($30,000- $60,000) receive 55% wage replacement, and higher earners (over $60,000) receive 40-45%, with the benefit capped at approximately $800 per week.
* Administer the program through the Department of Labor which will contract with states to administer the program.
* Allow states and businesses with equivalent or better benefits to opt-out of the program.

Click here to view a complete summary of the bill and bill text, then comment and let me know your thoughts on the legislation -- Bravo! or Boo!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tip of the Day: Stable-value funds may not be so stable

Remember the days when employees sat down with their HR/benefits representative to decide which of the available investment funds you wanted to include in your 401(k) retirement portfolio?

EBN contributor Gary Mink does, waxing nostalgic in this month's issue about "one fund [that] looked like a sure thing — conservative and boring, but safe," aka stable-value funds.

However, as Mink observes, the current recession means that all bets are off about "sure things" — stable-value funds included. Read his tips for employers on performing due diligence to determine stable-value funds' risk.

News You Can Use: Boehner unveils retirement plan legislation

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week unveiled a plan to prop up the nation's struggling defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plan systems, and offer help to Americans in boosting retirement savings.

The 411 on the plan:
* Doubles the allowable smoothing of DB assets (from 10% to 20%) for two years.
* Raises catch-up contribution limints for 401(k)s and IRAs.
* Extends the suspension of minimum required distributions (currently through 2009) through 2012.
* Requires interest payments only for two years on 2008 DB plan losses and extends amortization of those losses from seven to nine years.
* Doubles the amount of income older workers may earn -- from $14,160 to $28,320 -- before having Social Security benefits reduced.

What do you think? Both the DC and DB systems have been on bleeding since last fall (and for DB plans, even before that). Will this plan help bandage up some of the wounds? Comment and let me know.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Tip of the Day: See what 500 of your peers have to say about wellness incentives

In this month's EBN, Integrated Benefits Institute President Thomas Parry details the organization's findings after surveying more than 500 employers to document their use of incentives and disincentives to encourage health and productivity for their combined 5 million employees.

IBI examined current programs and developed much new information for employers about barriers and challenges to implementation, goals employers seek from their programs, which incentives and disincentives are used for which goals, their relative effectiveness, the amount spent on programs and what employers would do differently.

Click here to read the article and get busy applying your new/impr0ved incentives strategy.

News You Can Use: Workers see future without employer-sponsored benefits

Nearly half of U.S. workers foresee a future in which employers will not offer workplace benefits, such as health insurance and retirement savings plans, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments’consulting services group reported on BenefitNews.com.

Thirty percent of workers assume they will be accountable for obtaining their own benefits by 2019, while 18% think the government will supply benefits.

For better or worse, do you agree? What are the implications for recruitment and retention if employer-sponsored benefits fade to black? Comment and let me know.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Overheard @: President addresses health care at first-ever 'web-hall' meeting

Earlier this afternoon, I posted live Twitter updates on President Obama's first -ever online web-hall meeting. Taking a variety of questions from Internet viewers and a live White House audience, the president addressed several queries on health care.

One online questioner asked: Why can't we have a universal system based on patients' need, not finances?

Calling the employer-based system "an accident of history that works," Obama confirmed that employer-based health benefits should continue to be the foundation of the nation's system of care, but that we need to "fill gaps" in access and focus on prevention. Further, addressing critics who said his current budget proposals will swell the country's deficit, the president responded that one of keys to reducing the deficit is addressing problems in accessing and purchasing health care.

An audience member asked the president about how to amend insurance rules so that individuals with preexisting conditions still can obtain care and coverage affordably.

Referencing his mother's difficult struggle with ovarian cancer that was made even harder by "fighting on the phone with insurance companies," Obama emphasized that any reform of the health care system has to address pre-existing conditions in that insurers must be obligated to provide coverage.

Lastly in a humorous moment, the president addressed the question that won the most online votes: Is legalizing marijuana a sound strategy to aid economy? Joking about the interests/focus of the voting audience, Obama confirmed no, legalized marijuana is not an economic recovery tool. ;)

I thought the web-hall was a great way to include "regular people" in government. If President Obama hosts another web-hall meeting, what question would you most want him to answer? Comment and let me know.

Meanwhile, see EBN coverage of health experts' wish list of topics for Obama to address, and join our live discussion of all benefits topics on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ebneditor.

Tip of the Day: Revisit whether step therapy truly reduces Rx costs

First care coordination is debunked, and now this? A new study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Managed Care rips another page from the cost-containment playbook and turns it into confetti, concluding that step therapy -- which substitutes "Mercedes" brand-name prescription medicines for less expensive "Saturn" generics -- may actually increase health care costs.

The study, which was narrowed to medications to treat hypertension, found step therapy participants posted $99 more in quarterly health care expenditures and had more inpatient admissions and emergency room visits.

Lead study author Tami L. Mark told Business Insurance a key factor is making sure employers inform providers about step therapy programs.

Overheard @: 401(k) matches are 'wasted money'

In a column last Sunday in the Austin-American Statesman, commentator Scott Burns wrote:

"Most employers and workers don't realize it, but employer matching contributions are often wasted money. In the long term, investment expenses gobble up the employer contributions. Basically, those employer contributions don't go to the employee; they go to the financial services industry as fees for managing the money."

Click here to read the entire column and the hypothetical examples Burns uses to make his point.

What's your view? Are 401(k) matches a waste? How can fees be readjusted so that all contributions -- from employers and employees -- are more valuable? Comment and let me know.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wish You Were Here: Principal to honor best companies for employee financial security

To put it mildly, helping employees feel financially secure in this economic environment is challenging. The Principal Financial Group® believes companies meeting the challenge deserve to be recognized, and thus have opened the eighth annual search for The Principal® 10 Best Companies for Employee Financial Security. The program recognizes 10 growing companies (with five to 1,000 employees) that excel at helping employees ensure their financial futures even in the face of the current recession.

“The Principal 10 Best judges recognize the turbulent economy is putting pressure on benefit programs like never before. They understand some companies are making thoughtful adjustments in their programs as a result,” says Principal VP Renee Schaaf. “Judges are looking for companies who are responding to business conditions in ways that least impact the long-term financial security of their work force.”

Nomination and entry forms are available here; nominees need not be Principal clients. Deadline for entries is May 1.

Good luck, and for inspiration, stay tuned for EBN's June 1 issue, for a profile of the 2008 honorees.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tip of the Day: Prepare your celebration for National Employee Benefits Day!

I love any excuse for a party, but this is a genuinely good reason: The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans is once again leading the celebrations for the annual National Employee Benefits Day (April 2).

Although the day is not as widely celebrated as New Year's Eve or Mardi Gras, amid the current recession, it's more important than ever to cheer the successes of employers and employees alike in maintaining and wisely taking advantage of benefits plans. Further, the day is an important one to focus on education and awareness about benefits.

This year, IFEBP is encouraging benefits pros to use the day as an opportunity to educate themselves and their participants on the importance of retirement security.

On April 2, IFEBP will offer on the Benefits Day site (www.ifebp.org/benefitsday) free videos featuring Dallas Salisbury, president of EBRI, and Brett Hammond, chief investment strategist with TIAA–CREF, reflecting on what the current economy means for benefit plan sponsors and the future of retirement security.

The site also provides free tip sheets for employees, online educational resources and suggestions for employers on how to celebrate.

News You Can Use: EBN sponsors COBRA web seminar

On the heels of last week's release of Department of Labor model notices to guide employers in explaining the federal COBRA subsidy for laid-off workers, EBN and sister publication Employee Benefit Adviser will moderate an informational web seminar tomorrow, March 25, offering more information about the notices and subsidy.

The session's featured speakers will be EBN Contributing Editor Frank Palmieri, founding partner of Palmieri and Eisenberg, and William Sweetnam, Jr. from Groom Law Group. Both are members of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel.

Click here for registration information.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tip of the Day: Devil is in details of RMD suspension

This month, Contributing Editor and EBN legal eagle Frank Palmieri helps you find the devil in the details of the federal suspension of the required minimum distribution provision in the Worker, Retiree and Employer Recovery Act. WRERA suspends for 2009 IRS rules that compelled retirees age 70 1/2 and older to take required minimum distributions from defined contribution retirement plans and IRAs.

Although the law's goal was reasonable and the solution simple, it leads to inevitable complexity. Why can't anything in this industry ever be simple?

Read what Frank advises here.

Yay or Nay: Is Twitter a valuable, viable benefits communications tool?

It's no secret, the world's gone a-Twitter. Whether being used to communicate with friends, colleagues or like-minded strangers, the social networking site Twitter experienced 1,382% growth between February 2008 and February 2009.

With more than 7 million registered users, no doubt you and/or many of your employees are among the twitterati. As employers continue to struggle to engage employees in benefits communication, it's hard to ignore the potential for reaching that many people at once. Stay tuned for an EBN report on one company's success in communicating via tweet.

So, does your company use Twitter (or a Twitter-esque medium) to communicate with employees? Would you consider doing so? Is Twitter just a fad -- as one of my colleagues called it, "the mortgage-backed securities of communication" -- or is it a valuable, viable communications tool with staying power? Yay or nay?

Wish You Were Here: No work, all play makes for successful Assurant training module

Tell the truth — which training session would you rather go through: Spending two hours watching PowerPoint slides go by or playing a video game? The benefits and communications teams at Assurant Employee Benefits, a Kansas City-based benefits carrier, thought employees would be more engaged by the latter, and have achieved success with the company's series of online training video games called "It's Your Business."

Read how they made it work in this month's EBN.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tip of the Day: Tear down this wall

A workplace without walls? Encouraging socializing among coworkers? The folks at Gensler, a design, planning and strategic consulting firm, are big proponents of both. Read up on why in a two-part series in the February and March issues of EBN.

News You Can Use: Allstate all out of target-date biz

The news is going from bad to worse on target-date funds. Performance is flagging, and the latest from EBN's sister publication Money Management Executive: Allstate has decided to cancel its seven ClearTarget Retirement Funds after only 10 months, saying that it has decided to exit the target-date mutual fund business due to lackluster sales.

“This action is part of a strategy to reduce expenses at Allstate Financial and focus on a narrower set of products that meet everyday Americans’ protection and retirement needs and offer the greatest opportunity for Allstate Financial to compete effectively,” said an Allstate spokeswoman.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tip of the Day: Play mind games (but in a good way)

Employees are getting hit with a bunch of health care letters these days: HSAs, HRA, CDHPs. And before you toss more at them, VBBD (value-based benefits design), experts tell EBN you need to get into their minds to change workers' attitudes toward health care quality and cost.

VBBD focuses on lowering or eliminating out-of-pocket costs for medications, medical procedures, services and visits to physicians and hospitals that have a track record of obtaining high-quality outcomes. VBBD is gaining momentum among employers, but can run into obstacles built by employee misperceptions about the relationship between health care cost and quality.

The Midwest Business Group on Health assembled nine focus groups to gauge employees' attitudes on cost and quality issues. Click here to read what they found and how you can change workers' minds as a means to lowering costs.

Overheard @: Employer confidence in future of health benefits slips

Amid rising health care costs and other economic worries, a majority of large U.S. employers remain confident they will continue to offer health care benefits to workers 10 years from now. However, the level of confidence has slipped from last year due to economic concerns and uncertainty over the implications of potential health care reform, according to a new survey by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health, an association of more than 300 mostly large employers.

Conducted in January, the survey of 489 large U.S. employers finds 62% are very confident they will continue to offer health care benefits 10 years from now, down from 73% last year. The survey also found that, due to today’s economic uncertainty, roughly 59% have either revamped their current health care strategy or expect to do so this year.

"This is the first time in the 14 years that we have conducted this survey that employer confidence has declined, and it is not related to an increase in cost trends,” says Ted Nussbaum, North America director of group and health care consulting at Watson Wyatt. “This clearly reflects the uncertainty among large employers over the impact that the fragile economy is having on their ability to stay competitive in the face of health care costs that persistently rise at double the rate of general inflation.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tip of the Day: Put it in writing

As financial and litigation fears both have employers on edge, an EBN report this month offers employers three letters to help protect themselves when making benefits changes/reductions: S, P, D.

Benefit analysts urge employers to become strict adherents to ERISA rules on summary plan descriptions and summaries of material modifications, because the practice will not only help them to avoid costly litigation, but also broaden their opportunities to better educate workers about their benefits.

Putting any changes -- no matter how small -- in writing is key because "at the end of day, the issue as to whether the modification was material will get resolved in a courtroom where a plan participant says, 'No one told me that the company changed X benefit,'" obxerves Robert Fisher, a partner at Foley Hoag, LLP, a law firm based in Boston.

News You Can Use: Obama open to taxing health benefits

When President Obama told attendees at this month's White House forum on health care reform that there were "no sacred cows," and "all options are on the table," few suspected he meant taxing health care benefits, as he campaigned hard last year against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for proposing just that.

However, at a recent Congressional hearing, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) raised the issue with presidential budget director Peter Orszag, Orszag said making benefits taxable should “most firmly should remain on the table.” Wyden has crafted a health care reform proposal of his own that would tax benefits.

Although details still have yet to be ironed out, it's believed that employer contributions for health benefits would not be taxed, but that the cost of providing benefits would be factored in to total compensation and subject to taxes.

What do you think of this proposal? It no doubt will be politically unpopular, but could it finance a larger reform effort that is sorely needed? Comment and let me know.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Yay or Nay: Does AIG anger affect executive benefits?

As news has spread that AIG -- beneficiaries of more than $170 billion of our money in government bailout funds -- is paying out $175 million in executive bonuses this week, the response has been unfavorable, to put it mildly.

Outrage over the bonuses have led to group protests outside the company's headquarters, possible legislation in Congress to try to recoup the money and even one Senator who bombastically suggested the executives receiving the bonuses should resign or kill themselves.

As EBN has an upcoming feature on executive benefits, I wondered if the AIG outrage does/should affect the way employers structure executive compensation and benefits or the way they communicate exec pay and perks to employees? What do you think? Yay or nay?

Tip of the Day: Consider being taken captive

In this month's EBN, contributor Karin Landry outlines how the current recession may present an opportunity for benefit managers to consider turning to captives to reduce benefits costs and manage risk.

Higher savings, lower risk? Stop looking for the catch. Just click here to read more.

Yay or Nay: EFCA: A good bill? Will it pass?

A week ago today, some employers cringed as Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Employee Free Choice Act in the House and Senate (known in less-approving circles as "card check").

If approved, the most controversial aspect of the bill amends the National Labor Relations Act to allow for non-secret union elections, letting employees vote yes or no by checking a card. Further, the measure lets employers and unions send contract bargaining to mediation and binding arbitration, and increases penalties against employers that fire or discriminate against workers for union activity.

Supporters say the bill will strengthen unions -- and by extension, benefits and wages -- and lessen employers' ability to strongarm workers against unionizing. Detractors say the bill would make unions more aggressive and employers more likely to send jobs overseas.

What do you say? Is EFCA a good bill? And either way, will it ultimately be approved? Yay or nay?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tip of the Day: Get a 'whole lotta cannoli'

I'm not a fan of cannoli myself, but EBN Contributing Editor Karrie Andes sure is, and wants to share it -- so to speak -- with you, her benefits peers.

In her "View from the Andes" column this month, she makes the case for self-insuring (an easier sell in the current economy, to be sure), stating the potential savings from being exempt from state mandates alone can be 20% to 45%, and add up to a 'whole lotta cannoli.'

Is your company self-insured? If so, are you as strong an advocate as Andes? Comment and let me know.

Overheard @: Supreme Court to hear case on 401(k) fees

Stay tuned plan sponsors and providers. Fresh off the news that Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) was taking up legislation on 401(k) fees, here is more legal froth on fees reported by colleagues at EBN sister publication Money Management Executive:

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a case three investors in Oakmark Funds had brought over what they alleged to be excessive fees failed to meet the burden of proof, setting an important precedent that protected fund firms against such cases.

But now, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case to determine whether the case set too high a bar.

The investors said Oakmark should charge retail investors the same lower fees that it charges institutional investors, arguing that it provides the same services to both investor classes. The investors further charged that as the firm’s assets rose, Oakmark failed to pass along economies of scale. But Oakmark, and other fund companies in the past, countered that retail investors demand more services than institutional investors.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tip of the Day: Protect your AWP savings

Psst! PBMs don't want you to know about a class-action settlement involving prescription medicine pricing could result in drug-spend savings of 0.7% to 1.6% for plan sponsors. (Every penny helps these days, right?)

In a March EBN cover story, contributors Emil Kraft and Scott Rogers advice benefit managers about how some pharmacy benefit managers are attempting to reduce or eliminate the savings from the suit by changing pharmacy contracts. Don't lost out: Read the story here.

News You Can Use: CVS closes 90 MinuteClinics til next flu season

In what may be another sign of the (recession) times, CVS has announced it will close 90 of the retail MinuteClinics located in its stores until next flu season, citing an effort to align clinic open hours with consumer demand.

Is this a cost-cutting move in response to the recession, a sign of consumers foregoing care due to cost or a larger rejection of the retail clinic model? Comment and let me know what you think.

More EBN coverage on retail clinics:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

News You Can Use: Aetna touts CDHP outcomes

Aetna this week released results from a six-year study of its consumer-driven health plan offerings that show the plans saved employers saved millions and empowered consumers to seek more preventive care and routine screenings, use generic prescriptions and visit the ER less often.

Truthfully, I wasn't even sure whether or not to post this as news, because I feel like a kid with a Ouija board could have predicted these results. CDHPs save employers a significant amount over PPOs because they don't have to cover the underutilization of services healthy people don't use, and the overutilization of services that members don't truly need.

And, CDHP members seek preventive care and routine screenings in larger numbers because they usually are the services that the plans cover at 100%. Members use generics and visit the ER less because the alternatives -- paying out of pocket for brand-name drugs and ER fees -- are too expensive when members have to face their true costs.

I think the true measure of CDH success should be whether members are healthier, not just less expensive to cover.

Just my two cents.

What do you think? How would you define "success" regarding CDH? Comment and let me know.

News You Can Use: EBN announces keynote speakers for 22nd annual BF&E

EBN's 22nd annual Benefits Forum & Expo will be held Sept. 13-15 in Atlanta, and we have a peach of a program lined up for you, including an expanded agenda and two dynamic keynote speakers.

Intrigued? I knew you would be. Click here to find out more.

Tip of the Day: Do you need to help employees 'RescueTime'?

The folks at RescueTime, a firm producing a software tool to help employers make workers spend their time and attention more effectively, estimate that daylight savings time, which began last Sunday costs employers -- ready for this? -- $480 million in lost productivity. Yes, million, with an "m."

Granted, they've got something to sell (the software) and promote (their new report on how employees truly spend their work time), but I think it's fair to say that DST -- losing a precious hour's sleep and adjusting to different daylight hours -- could very well throw employees off their game. To the tune of nearly half a billion dollars? Maybe, maybe not? Just food for thought.

What do you think? What has been your experience on the effects of daylight savings time on worker productivity. Comment and let me know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tip of the Day: Effective communication through layoffs in three stages

Although survey results show employers forecast that “the pace of layoffs may be slowing from the staggering highs of the last few months, ... there will certainly be more to come,” admits Kathryn Yates, global director of communication consulting at Watson Wyatt. “While employers continue to make difficult cost-cutting decisions, they can still take important steps to keep remaining workers engaged and productive on the job.”

Watson Wyatt suggests three stages of communications efforts for employers before, during and following layoffs:

Prepare leaders early. Leaders should initially deliver key messages about business conditions and actions, and frontline managers should personalize and reinforce them.

Clearly communicate the rationale for layoffs, and don’t shy away from tough questions. Transparency is critical to maintaining trust. Employees leaving the organization will want to know what support the company will provide them and hear that their service has been valued. Employees remaining will want to know whether their own jobs are secure. Messages to both groups should remain consistent.

Engage remaining employees by communicating a vision for the future. Highly engaged employees are more resilient during times of change and will drive performance in critical times. Deliver messages about the organization’s long-term vision, clarify how employees can contribute to it and set up realistic expectations for sharing information and offering support going forward.

EBN recently spent "Five Minutes With ..." Yates for our podcast series. Download the audio here.

Overheard @: 'These people are the sickest of your population'

In a "Five Minutes With ..." podcast, Maria Henderson, founder of HDM solutions and chair-elect of the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission, spoke with EBN Managing Editor Leah Carlson Shepherd about the commission’s leadership awards for disability management and tips for employers in managing the benefit more effectively.

Henderson also reminds employers that employees on short-term disability, although just 10% of the active population, spend "over 50% of your health care for each year. These people are the sickest in your population. You need to be paying attention to them." Download the podcast here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tip of the Day: Catch up on your reading

We know you are busy HR/benefits professionals, but to elevate your industry knowledge, you might consider spending some time reading these new books:

“Why Health Care Matters” by Frank Hone. This is an employer’s guide to health care consumerism, written by the founder of Healthcentric Partners, which provides audits, research, consulting and communication planning for employee health.

“Fixing the 401(k)” by Joshua Itzoe, a principal at Greenspring Wealth Management. Offers thoughts on how to improve the 401(k) industry and protect participants from themselves.

“Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training and Development” by Andrew Jefferson, Roy Pollock and Calhoun Wick. Provides practical tips, checklists and worksheets for managers and employees to make training programs more effective.

“Vision Driven: Lessons Learned from the Small Business C-Suite” by Mallary Tytel. Offers advice on employee engagement, communication and leadership. --Leah Carlson Shepherd

Overheard @: Employment proposals 'economically, operationally disastrous'

This month, EBN's Kathleen Koster spent "Five Minutes With ..." Howard Bernstein, a labor and employment attorney at Chicago-based law firm Neal Gerber Eisenberg. Bernstein serves up some straight talk regarding HR policy changes expected from the incoming administration and how they will affect a company’s ability to compete in a global economy.

Several health care proposals in particular, he says, are "socially desirable, but economically and operationally disastrous." Download the podcast here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

News You Can Use: Live from NY, it's the Benefits Health Care Show & Conference

I'm in the Big Apple today for the Benefits Health Care NY Show & Conference, co-hosted by EBN and Flagg Management. I'm presenting this morning in a session with Sara Collins, assistant vice president at The Commonwealth Fund. We'll be taking on the hefty topic, "What's next for health care reform?" The hour should fly by.

Also on tap for the event are sessions on:
* Dealing with the new COBRA subsidy allowed under the economic stimulus law.
* Recession-proofing your benefits package.
* Maximizing your consultant's services.

All these and more in just one day! And don't worry that you can't attend; I'll be sending live updates and overheard quotes via Twitter at twitter.com/ebneditor.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tip of the Day: Less than a month to go - Make sure your Part D is in e-prescribing compliance

With less than a month to go before e-prescribing technology mandates for Medicare Part D plans become effective, some plans still aren't ready to comply, AIS Health reports.

According to AIS, Under the 2003 Medicare reform law that created the Medicare prescription benefit (better known as Part D), all Medicare Advantage prescription drug plans and stand-alone Part D Prescription Drug Plans are required to be able to support e-prescribing standards once they are in place.

The deadline for plans to meet the e-prescribing standards -- including formulary and benefit transactions, medication history transactions, fill-status notifications and identification of individual health care providers -- is (no joke!) April 1. Don't let your plan make an April fool out of you.

Overheard @: Pension relief 'killed two birds with one stone'

In a "Five Minutes With ..." podcast, Evan Inglis, chief actuary for the Vanguard Strategic Retirement Consulting group, talks with Associate Editor Lydell Bridgeford about the short- and long-term implications of the Worker, Retiree and Employer Recovery Act as it relates to pension funding relief for DB plan sponsors in light of the economic crisis.

Inglis says that as the law contained PPA technical corrections as well as provide breathing room for plan sponsors, it "killed two birds with one stone." Click here to download the audio, and click here to read the March EBN article, "Pension lifeline too short, experts say."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Overheard @: Obama on health care: 'Let's get to work'

Calling today's White House forum on health care reform the "hottest ticket in town," President Barack Obama in his opening remarks made an ambitious promise to reform the nation's health care system by the end of the year.

Referencing the $634 billion his budget sets aside for the reform initiative, Obama said "every option is on the table. There are no sacred cows. The only option off the table is the status quo."

Although the president mentioned few specifics, he said modernizing health records and lowering the overall cost of care as main priorities.

Tip of the Day: See the new IRS info on claiming the COBRA subsidy

Effective this week, employers no doubt want to claim credit for the federal COBRA subsidy provided in the economic stimulus law. Here's help to do just that.

New information at IRS.gov includes questions and answers for employers and a revised version of Form 941, the quarterly payroll tax return employers will use to claim credit for COBRA premiums. The new form will also be sent to about 2 million employers in mid-March.

Under the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, COBRA-eligible employees are responsible for 35% of the cost of COBRA coverage. Employers can receive a credit for the other 65% after submitting:

* Documentation they received the employee’s 35% share of the premium.
* A copy of an invoice from the insurance carrier showing proof of payment.
* Declaration of the former employee’s involuntary termination.

News You Can Use: Kohl calls for increased scrutiny of target-date funds

From EBN's sister publication Money Management Executive: The chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging has called for more scrutiny of target-date retirement funds after several 2010 target-date funds posted huge losses in 2008.

"While it may be too late for those who already have suffered substantial and irreversible financial losses, it is vital that aggressive and timely action be taken to protect the retirement income of all Americans," said Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), in letters to Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

Target-date funds are meant to automatically rebalance an investor's portfolio to more conservative asset allocations as they approach retirement. In theory, 2010 funds should be very conservative, yet one 2010 fund lost 41% last year, Kohl said.

Because taking excessive risk can be devastating to investors who are close to retirement, he said new regulation or legislation may be needed to make investors more aware of the risk of these funds.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tip of the Day: Be careful mixing job, benefits terminations

When it comes to terminating benefits along with jobs, employers must take care to remember the two may not mix -- at least in the eyes of the legal system.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court held last week that Claire Cole, a former secretary for the department of public works in Salem, Mass., should have received full disability benefits after she suffered a heart attack within an hour of hearing she would lose her job in March 2000.

Cole, who died of a separate illness in 2006, previously claimed that past years of job-related stress, in addition to hearing that her position would be eliminated due to budget concerns, caused the attack, leaving her unable to do her job and thereby deserving full disability benefits. The Contributory Retirement Appeal Board later found that the debilitating heart attack was job-related, a finding that was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

The two key questions the court answered in the Retirement Board of Salem vs. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board were whether Cole’s heart attack occurred “as a result of and while in the performance of her duties” and whether or not the city is liable for the damages despite conducting a routine management practice.

Countering Cole’s assertions, the Salem Contributory Retirement Board argued that Cole had pre-existing conditions of hypertension and chronic anxiety.

Whether or not these types of claims will become a trend in coming months as more and more workers are expected to be laid off is hard to say. But according to one Salem attorney, this was a highly specialized case.

“If you’re talking about situations where people are being notified that their jobs are being eliminated and they have a reaction to that, if that reaction is purely mental or psychological, they will not recover [benefits],” Alan Pierce told Salem News. “If the reaction is physical, they will recover. But how frequently will someone have a heart attack or stroke upon receiving bad news?”

Is this a legitimate ruling or should her qualification for disability benefits have ended with her job’s imminent termination? Let us know what you think. --Kathleen Koster

Wish You Were Here: Medical Tourism Association is giving away a free trip to Mexico!

Wanna go to Mexico? Oh yeah, and learn about the benefits of medical tourism, too? The folks at the Medical Tourism Association clearly ascribe to the "seeing is believing" mantra, as they're offering to pay full costs -- airfare, hotel and other travel expenses -- for any employer who wants to attend the Latin America Medical Tourism conference, to be held April 27-29 in Monterrey, Mexico.

Benefits decisionmakers that attend will learn first-hand about medical tourism and tour the top Latin America hospitals, returning home with information to choose whether a medical tourism benefit is one they want to add to their health plan (and probably a pretty nice tan as well).

MTA is careful to point out that the offer is solely for employers in a position to implement medical tourism -- meaning self-funded employers or large fully insured employers. If that's you, then adios!

For more information, contact MTA President Jonathan Edelheit at jon@medicaltourismassociation.com.

Overheard @: I regret enrolling in an HSA

Detailing findings from Employee Benefit Research Institute/Commonwealth Fund research, I confront my misgivings about enrolling in a high-deductible health plan with an HSA. Download my podcast here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tip of the Day: Maintain your business hygiene

Stats show most of us spend 60 minutes or less a month maintaining or building our professional network. In hygiene terms, that's pretty nasty, no?

The folks at exec recruiting firm The Pachera Group think so, and are offering up some tips on how to clean up our acts.

Firm partner Mike Vanneman sympathizes, acknowledging it’s not that people don’t want to have movers and shakers in their network; it’s just that life gets in the way and pushes this important task to the back burner.

Then, he says, when individuals lose or leave a their job, “all of a sudden, they look at contacts in their Blackberry, Outlook or day planner and realize the only people in their network are family members, former classmates or people with whom they would have preferred to lose touch.”

The good news is that in this case, technology is a blessing, not a curse. The popularity of sites such as LinkedIn, Plaxo Pulse and Facebook makes building a network easy and fun.

LinkedIn is the most widely adopted business networking site and odds are many of the people you have lost touch with are already active on the site. Create a high-impact profile by:
* Uploading a picture that conveys approachability and friendliness.
* Asking former bosses, peers and subordinates for recommendations.
* Joining networking groups, such as your alma mater, former employer alumni or professional associations.

Facebook is attracting more and more baby boomers who use it for connecting with colleagues, friends and family. Some suggested steps to get started:
* Be somewhat selective. Since Facebook provides a peak into your personal and business life, invite only people you know personally or who have been recommended to you by a trusted friend.
* Be careful of what you post on your page. Whatever you post is there for the world to see! Avoid pictures that put you in compromising situations or where someone could question your character.
* Be consistent. Facebook and all networking sites are like gardens. They require constant care, feeding and nurturing. Don’t let content stay up for too long. Change your profile picture periodically. Post new photos. Contribute to someone else’s Wall.

Plaxo differs from other social networking sites in that their focus is more on the content you share with your contacts than amassing hundreds or thousands of connections. Once you get started with Plaxo, you can:
* Post blog entries, restaurant reviews and links to articles or videos.
* Comment or debate about content others have posted.
* Check out how Plaxo is used by others and inquire about how they have found it to be a valuable tool in their professional or social lives.

Says Vanneman, “LinkedIn, Facebook and Plaxo should become as much a part of your personal workflow as e-mail and your mobile phone. Maintaining and expanding your network on a daily basis is essential especially in today’s times because you never know when you may need to reach out and connect with someone.”

Personally, I agree with Vanneman on all counts. But what do you think? Are you using LinkedIn, Facebook and/or Plaxo? If so, how would you rate the experience in terms of pruning and growing your network? If not, why not? Comment and let me know.

Yay or Nay: Is Sebelius a good pick to lead HHS?

President Barack Obama yesterday announced his selection of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) to lead the Health and Human Services Department.

Sebelius, along with former Clinton administration official Nancy-Ann DeParle (who will head the newly created White House Office for Health Reform), will be tasked with executing the president's ambitious health care reform agenda (click here for EBN coverage on President Obama's health care proposals and how health benefits experts handicap the odds for passage). The president's budget sets aside $634 billion for health care reform.

On Sebelius' scorecard:
* She is a long-time advocate of universal coverage, but lost at several attempts to expand coverage to low-income and uninsured Kansans.
* She's worked to control state health care costs and encourage wellness by implementing an incentive program to get state employees to quit smoking.
* She served as her state's insurance commissioner for eight years, notably blocking the sale of BCBS of Kansas, and joining a multi-state group to purchase lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada.

So, what do you think? Is Sebelius a good pick to lead HHS -- yay or nay?

Overheard @: Psst! Beware -- disgruntled employees can 'Telonu'

Wrapped with a bow, ready-made for the "technology-as-a-curse" files is a new site and application from Telonu Inc. that, by the company's own description, allows current and former employees to "rave, rant and rate your workplace and the people there."

The firm's latest additions are its Layoff Tracker Widget and Layoff Talk site to help people keep pace with the job market and stay on top of the latest pink slip announcements amid the recession. The widget lets anyone display as-it-happens layoff announcements on their personal Web site or blog. For each announcement, the Layoff Tracker displays the company, date of announcement and number of affected jobs (Get it? Telonu = tell on you).

No, you're not having a nightmare. And unfortunately it gets worse. Users then can visit Telonu’s Layoff Talk site, where they can read more details about a specific layoff, check out what others in the community have posted and leave their own anonymous posting.

Although far from ideal for employers, Telonu is another sign of the times, as layoffs have become a large part of today’s work culture. Stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that since the start of the recession in 2007, the total number of unemployment claims jumped to 2,394,434.

What do you think of Telonu? Useful tool or literally a sounding board for disgruntled current and ex-workers? Comment and let me know.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tip of the Day: Get your 403(b) 'untangled'

With all of the health-related regulatory changes coming fast and furiously lately -- FMLA, ADA, COBRA, insert series of letters here -- it could be easy to forget that retirement plans saw some pretty massive regulatory shifts as well. In particular, the final rules applying to 403(b) plans -- which became effective Jan. 1 -- can be just as much of a compliance headache as any health-related acronym.

With that in mind, MassMutual's Retirement Services Division has announced it will host a web seminar, "Untangling Your 403(b)," on Wednesday, March 4 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. ET.

Featured speakers include Robert J. Architect, senior tax law specialist for the Internal Revenue Service's Employee Plans Division; M. Palmer Whitney, national managing director for MassMutual's nonprofit market; Deborah Walker, CPA, Deloitte Tax LLP; and David Levine, principal, Groom Law Group.

CE credits are available. For registration details, call 866-444-2601.

News You Can Use: Employers offer good news, bad news on the recession

The bad news is, employers see the current recession lasting a while. The good news is, they also seem to think the worst of layoff and other cuts is past.

New survey data from Watson Wyatt shows 61% of employers expect the current downturn to last at least until the end of 2009. However, the firm reports that most companies already have made most of the sweeping changes they intend to.

“Companies have come to terms with the fact that this recession is going to last and that they can’t slash their way out of it,” says Laura Sejen, global director of strategic rewards consulting at Watson Wyatt. “With over half of companies reporting they have already made layoffs, they are now focusing on smaller, more sustainable cost-cutting actions.”

According to the survey of 245 large U.S. employers conducted in February, 52% have made layoffs, up from 39% two months ago. Additionally, 56% now have a hiring freeze in effect, an increase from 47% in December’s survey.

However, the number of companies planning layoffs has fallen from 23% to 13%. “This may be good news," notes Laurie Bienstock, Watson senior compensation consultant, "as companies move more towards cost-cutting efforts other than workforce reductions in an effort to hold on to the workers they will need when recovery eventually comes.”

Workers won't be untouched by those other cost-cutting efforts, though. Among them are:
* Salary freezes, 42% (up from 13%).
* Reductions in 401(k) matches, 12% (up from 3%).
* A shortened workweek, 13% (up from 2%).
* Travel restrictions, 69% (up from 48%).

What do you think? In terms of layoffs, is the worst over? What alternative cost-cutting measures are you considering in lieu of/in addition to salary reductions? Comment and let me know.