More health benefit plan members want flexibility

By Sheryl Smolkin

The 2015 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey reveals that virtually all health plan members are positive about their current health plans but almost two-thirds of employees responding to the survey would like the opportunity to spend their benefit dollars on programs that are more tailored to the needs of their family. 

Ninety-four percent of plan members are positive when describing the overall quality of their health benefits, with 58% describing them as very good or excellent. This result has been consistent since the Sanofi survey first posed the question in 2006. 

Similarly, 93% of respondents believe their health benefit plan meets their needs and 56% of this group judge that it does so extremely or very well. Health benefits also continue to be an effective means to attract and retain employees, as 77% of respondents say they would not move to a job that did not include health benefits (rising to 80% in Manitoba/Saskatchewan and decreasing to 66% in Quebec). 

When asked which statement most closely describes their plan, 77% of plan members selected “a traditional plan that defines what is covered and the levels of coverage” and 23% selected “a ‘flex’ plan that allows them to choose levels of coverage.” When then asked which type of plan they prefer, 64% of members opted for the less-prevalent flex plan and 36% opted for the traditional plan. 

A separate survey of plan sponsors indicates that 32% offer flex plans. Larger employers (more than 500 employees) are more likely to do so at 50%, followed by mid-size (34%, 101–500 employees) and smaller employers (18%, up to 100 employees). 

Plan members, meanwhile, are consistent no matter the size of their organization. Approximately two-thirds said they prefer a flex plan over a traditional plan. 

“Plan members see great value in having a health benefit plan, but they also want to have a voice in decisions around what is covered. That’s a huge challenge for plan sponsors, but perhaps this is an opportunity and the time is right to make change,” says Susan Belmore-Vermes, director group benefits solutions, at Health Association Nova Scotia. “The question is, how do we as an industry create a strategy to redesign plans that are decades old for many of us?” 

Plan members’ high satisfaction levels can also contribute toward a sense of complacency in benefits management, warn members of the advisory board. As a result, change is generally a response to “burning platforms” rather than evolving needs. 

“Plan members are telling us there’s a desire for flexibility and personalization, and the timing is right because we’re seeing greater differences between the generations and we have this great ‘bulge’ of baby boomers in the workforce right now. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of traditional plans doesn’t really suit this reality,” says Marilee Mark, vice-president, market development, at Sun Life Financial. 

As well, plan members’ changing needs do not necessarily point to added costs for the employer. “For example, there’s a growing interest in getting access to resources and education,” says Mark. 

Board members also point to a potential sleeping giant: chronic disease. “Chronic disease in the workplace is very prevalent and employers are not paying attention to it. We can’t wait for it to become a burning platform,” notes Carol Craig, director of human resources, benefits and pensions at TELUS. 

When plan members were presented with seven possible new benefit offerings, they said they would most likely use onsite screening with a healthcare professional to determine personal risks for chronic diseases (45%) followed by on-site immunization for infectious diseases (40%) and coverage for fitness/yoga classes (34%). 

Plan members also reported using paramedical services (i.e. massage therapy, physiotherapy, chiropractic services) an average of 7.3 times in the last year, the second highest rate of utilization after prescription medicine (9.5 times).

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