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8 tips for bountiful bennies

With a step-by-step approach to health insurance benefits, Best Company employers like CUNA Mutual Group have no problem meeting the coverage mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

With a step-by-step approach to health insurance benefits, Best Company employers like CUNA Mutual Group have no problem meeting the coverage mandates of the Affordable Care Act.

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Are you really taking care of the people who take care of your customers? That’s the fundamental question behind IB’s second annual Best Companies feature, and it’s a question that is affirmatively answered by the business organizations that sit atop our Best Companies ranking.

By virtue of their generous benefits packages and employee-friendly company cultures, our Best Companies benefit from a higher number of long-tenured employees, but the organizational benefits don’t end there. To give upstart companies an idea of how elite companies attract and retain employees, we spoke to several of our top-scoring employers. 

Obviously, because of their size and longevity, they can offer more in the way of employee benefits, but they’ve all stayed ahead of the benefit curve. This not only enables them to meet the coverage mandates of the Affordable Care Act, and do so with ease, it also allows them to offer the kind of cutting-edge benefit packages that attract and retain people with the skills needed for organizational excellence.

In structuring their benefits packages, they look at competitors in their respective industries, and at what’s going on in the Madison market, and they try to position themselves as leaders in both. Here are 8 tips to help growing companies pattern themselves after a Best Company. 

Tip 1: Move health care forward

In most cases, the most coveted benefit is medical insurance, which is also the most expensive benefit. Under the Affordable Care Act, all individuals not covered by Medicaid or Medicare must obtain medical insurance or pay penalties. Employer-provided health insurance coverage, provided it meets the federal government’s “minimum essential coverage” standard as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, would satisfy this universal coverage requirement. While the ACA does not require employers to provide health insurance coverage, if they have 50 or more employees and do not provide minimum essential coverage, they will be required to pay an additional tax to help subsidize workers’ health care coverage.

Strength in numbers: For years, Stafford Rosenbaum law firm has benefited from participation in the Dane County Bar Association health plan, where it is rated on the experience of a much larger group.

The rocky implementation of the law has led to calls to delay the individual mandate, just as the government has delayed the employer mandate by one year until January of 2015. Delay or no delay, meeting the qualifying coverage mandate is not much of a challenge for our top-rated Best Companies, some of which added features like domestic partner benefits several years ago.

The Affordable Care Act does impose an additional health plan tax that is adding roughly 5% to the cost of CUNA Mutual Group’s medical insurance plan, but it has the coverage bases covered. “We’ve been tracking the ACA pretty carefully, and the mandate really doesn’t affect our qualified plans,” says David Sargent, CUNA’s senior vice president of human resources. “There’s really nothing coming through the ACA that we haven’t really thought through.”

Tip 2: Don’t settle

Until a recent change in direction, Mortenson Construction had perfectly acceptable health insurance benefits, but the company thought it could gain more efficiency, for both itself and its employees, by moving to consumer-driven health plans. Two years ago, it launched health savings accounts and health reimbursement accounts that basically compel employees to be more savvy consumers of health care — more savvy because they manage their own accounts and therefore have more incentive to spend the money wisely.

As part of the transition, the company decided to sunset its preferred provider, or PPO, plan this year. Employees can now choose between two types of consumer-driven plans: the health reimbursement account, which is owned by the employer, and the health savings account, which is controlled by the employee. Those aren’t the only distinctions between the two plans, but they are designed to have consumers manage more of the money they spend and, theoretically, save on health care costs. Money is deposited into these accounts tax-free.

Molly Weiss, director of human resources for Mortenson, says the company will match a certain percentage of what each member employee chooses to place into the account. To aid and abet health consumerism, Mortensen offers online assistance tools like the Castlight health care management suite, which allows employees to research the cost of standard services like MRIs offered by different providers in their respective zip codes. Educating employees to make better choices is part of the program, and with more of their own skin in the game, the hope is they will make less costly decisions when warranted, such as choosing urgent care over emergency care for non-life-threatening needs. 

Weiss says the move to consumer-driven plans was not made because of the Affordable Care Act. “It’s something we’ve talked about for some time,” she noted. “We wanted to enable team members to make their own choices about health care so that we were dictating less about what’s covered. They take their own dollars and decide to use them for specific services.”

Tip 3: Consider industrial-strength bennies

To provide health benefits, Stafford Rosenbaum will continue to participate in the Dane County Bar Association plan for at least another year. Having local law firms band together to provide coverage allows the 70-employee, standalone firm to participate in a larger group plan and offer three different carrier options (Dean, Group Health Cooperative, and Physicians Plus). Typically, an organization of Stafford Rosenbaum’s size would only be able to offer a sole carrier. 

Smaller law firms under 50 employees are not as fortunate, as ACA regulations do not permit smaller employers to be part of an association plan. That has shrunk the size of the Dane County Bar Association plan from about 1,000 enrollees to roughly half that number, and made the renewal process more challenging because the plan, as formerly constituted, gave Stafford Rosenbaum the moderate cost experience of a much larger pool. “It helped us considerably because we are rated on the experience of a much larger group,” noted Michelle Andler, director of administration for Stafford Rosenbaum. 

For the 2014 plan year, some of the price quotes were not as advantageous, as quoted increases ranged from moderate to significant. That caused the group to look at possible plan design changes, but the plan design changes under consideration will still be above the mandated plan benefit level required by the ACA. 

Andler says Stafford Rosenbaum’s board of directors is committed to offering a group health plan. “We had to review our plans to make sure they offered the minimum level of benefits described, and they did,” she stated. “The impact the law had on the renewal process was the change in the makeup of the Dane County Bar plan. There was some question as to whether the plan would continue at all. We have requested several sole-carrier quotes and we’ve spent a lot of time considering different options.”

While the DCBA plan will continue into 2014, Andler says the 2015 plan year will bring additional changes. “There will be large-group options in the marketplace, and there will be as much or more evaluation required at renewal time next year,” she says.

Tip 4: Broaden your benefit horizon

While trying to figure out the right health plan to bring people to Madison and keep them here, the solution is broader than health benefits. It’s also about keeping your employees healthy through a wellness strategy that features a mix of carrots (cost discounts) for good health habits and sticks (financial penalties) for bad ones. Employers that invest in health screenings, employee assistance programs, flu shots, exercise opportunities, and chronic disease management not only boost productivity, they can positively influence insurance renewal rates.

For the 14th consecutive year, Suttle-Straus, a commercial printer based in Waunakee, has been recognized in the Printing Industries of America’s Best Workplaces program, which is judged by a panel of experienced HR professionals. In the past, Suttle-Straus has offered rebates for regular exercise, smoking cessation and nutrition classes, and discounts for health clubs, among other health and wellness benefits. 

The 2014 plan year will mark the first time Suttle-Straus offers a discount on insurance premiums for employees who take a health assessment, regardless of the result. The company will offer an additional discount for people who either pledge to be tobacco-free (including chewing or smokeless tobacco) in 2014 or who enroll in a tobacco-cessation program. For people who take full advantage of the discounts, the company pays 80% of the premiums for employees and 50% for dependents.

Otherwise, “everyone has access to the same plans, for the same rate, other than the discounts they can earn,” says Susan Pschorr, human resources director for Suttle-Straus.


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