Health care changes are inevitable

Published 9:41 am Monday, October 7, 2013

Amid the highly charged partisan debate about the viability of the federal Affordable Care Act, one of the best nonpolitical gauges to watch could be U.S. employers with 50 or more workers that already offer those workers health insurance. Here’s why.

Almost 95 percent of these employers now offer health insurance to full-time employees. But whether they will continue to offer that a year from now is anything but clear.

Witness a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that noted how Walgreen Co. has become the latest mega-corporation to change its company-backed health programs. Starting next year, the drugstore giant will provide payments to its 160,000 eligible employees and require them to shop for coverage on a private health-insurance marketplace.

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Walgreen’s is not alone. Sears and Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster and six others) recently announced similar plans. Meanwhile, the Journal report noted IBM Corp. and Time Warner plan to shift retirees from company-run plans to private exchanges.

Details about how much Walgreen’s or any of these businesses would pay employees and retirees to find insurance elsewhere are not known. But obviously many businesses are using their individual bottom lines to determine the best way to address President Obama’s signature legislation.

Of course, that should not be a surprise. Big companies have for years been requiring their workers to shoulder more of the burden of health care costs. These employers now assess everything from a “spousal surcharge” to biometrics testing of staffers.

(The former is a fee charged if a spouse has access to insurance through their employer but chooses coverage via the spouse. The latter includes tests for blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol, tobacco use, etc.)

As the Kaiser Family Foundation noted in the Journal report, big companies also have been gradually increasing out-of-pocket costs. More than one-third of workers at companies with 200 or more workers had annual deductibles of $1,000 or more last year, up from 10 percent of workers at those businesses in 2006.

Amid such trends, it’s not hard to imagine these big companies comparing the costs of offering benefits to what employees can buy on their own then choosing the option that’s best for their bottom lines.

Employees, potential job seekers and all consumers would do well to embrace the same approach.

— St. Cloud Times, Sept. 30

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