Shifting responsibilities Featured

8:51am EDT February 25, 2005
New health care options offer employers the opportunity to develop creative alternatives when designing their employee benefits package.

With new offerings such as high deductible health plans, health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements, employers and employees find themselves taking on a new set of responsibilities. Many are intrigued by consumer-driven health care, yet the transition seems to be hesitant.

Despite the advantages of HSAs, relatively few employers have adopted them, due to a lack of familiarity with a relatively new offering and a concern that HSAs may not appeal to many employees. Additionally, employees with chronic health issues, for example, would likely deplete HSA assets to pay deductibles. Moreover, those financially unable to contribute to the HSA would be faced with high out-of-pocket expenses.

On the other hand, for employers whose only option is to offer a high-deductible plan, the HSA is a welcome option. HSAs make high-deductible plans more attractive to employees, and studies indicate that HSAs have helped small business owners cut health benefits costs significantly -- in some cases by well over half.

Use of HSAs is expected to grow over the next few years. Insurance companies are developing HSA-compatible plans, and several large insurers are slated to offer the plans in 2005 and 2006. Maximum contribution levels for HSAs and the out-of-pocket spending limits for high-deductible health plans have already seen increases.

Fifty percent of companies with fewer than 200 employees describe themselves as somewhat or very likely to offer a high-deductible health plan with a savings account, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.

With employers moving toward consumer-driven health plans, often paired with an HSA or health reimbursement arrangement, employees must rethink how they use their group health care coverage with higher deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket maximums. With this shift in responsibility, employees will need support in making many new decisions.

Employees are faced with managing concerns beyond basic health care, and many companies have limited human resource support. But there are resources that can alleviate the frustrations of both employers and employees. The Business Briefcase, an offering of United Way of Allegheny County and the Chambers of Commerce Service Corp., is a free online tool that offers more than 5,000 health and human service programs.

The Business Briefcase is an example of how employers can offer their employees the guidance and support they need, such as help with child care services, assistance with an elderly parent or direction on where to receive free flu shots. Employees are up against a world of new responsibilities, and today's employer must be equipped with solutions.

Employers and employees have many challenges to look forward to with the changes that come with the move toward consumer-driven health care. Fortunately, there is support available to assist with this inevitable shift.

Jessica Galardini is COO of the Chambers of Commerce Service Corp. and executive vice president and COO of HRH Affinity Marketing Group. Reach her at (412) 456-7012.