Benefits

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In January 2013, LIMRA reported that 90% of industry executives it had surveyed believe that insurance companies will continue to form strategic alliances with “non-traditional organizations” to expand distribution. The example cited was MetLife’s trial alliance with 200 Wal-Mart stores. Then Accenture’s “Customer-Driven Innovation Survey” found that more than two-thirds of customers would consider purchasing home, auto and life insurance from businesses other than insurers—23% were open to purchasing from online service providers like Amazon or Google (which acquired auto insurance aggregator BeatThatQuote.com way back in 2011 in the UK).

Amazon has proven leadership as an e-commerce distributor, while Google is seen primarily as an information organization, so I would like to elaborate exclusively on the compelling reasons for insurers and Amazon to create a distribution model to match ever-evolving customer demands.

Customer demands

Every information source and every analyst report on insurance in the recent past points to changes in customer’s preferences. Generation X, Generation Y and Millennials prefer doing business with companies that provide:

  • Convenience of on-demand buying and self-service, predominantly through digital channels such as web and mobile.
  • Personalization of product and service delivery, including helping the customer choose the right product.
  • Building trust through transparency in pricing, simplified products and clear articulation of benefits.

So, insurers must innovate in personalizing products, providing transparency in the value of products and services and demonstrating excellence in on-demand distribution. Innovation must also touch “moments of truth” such as claims and policy changes. It is also critical that the distribution lifecycle should be an iterative process to consistently review the value of benefits and help customers fine tune the products and services they purchase.

Continue reading “Can Amazon Dominate In Insurance, Too?”

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Starbucks, which taught America to love lattes, made news this week with the announcement of a new tuition benefit for its partners (Starbucks-speak for employees). At first glance this move seems like simply another benefit in Starbucks relatively (for its industry) generous compensation package. In particular, Starbucks has long been heralded for providing health insurance for all partners working more than 20 hours per week. It is this connection to health insurance that we wish to explore. While Howard Schulz the founder and current CEO of Starbucks has long said the firm offers health insurance because it is the “right thing to do” for their employees, we have always suspected a more profit maximizing goal for this compensation decision. If we put on our strategy hats (we are both members of Kellogg’s Strategy Department), we can deduce that as a profit-maximizing firm, what Starbucks giveth with tuition benefits it may soon taketh away from health insurance benefits. In the process, Starbucks may be heralding the demise of employer sponsored health insurance, something we have predicted in previous blogs.

Continue reading “What a New Benefit From Starbucks Teaches Us About the Future of Employer Provided Health Insurance”

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flying cadeuciiIn ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.”

It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust.

Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.

Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers.

It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made.

Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures?

Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?

Continue reading “ACA 101: An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice”

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So many old rules in health care and insurance no longer seem to apply.

I keep stumbling upon situations, where, what used to be up is now down and what used to be down is now up.

No one seems to know for sure how things will settle out under the new reality created by Obamacare and the even more unpredictable reactions to the law by health care companies, employers and, most especially, you and me.

I’ve started using the term “weightlessness” to describe this state we’re in. Picture the astronauts on the international space station, floating through a room, flipping at will, as likely to settle on a wall or on the ceiling as on the floor.

That’s what life is like under Obamacare now—for physicians, hospital administrators, insurance executives, benefits brokers and employers.

Here are a few examples:

1. I wrote last week about how a chunk of workers, even at large employers with generous benefits, would actually get a better deal on health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges than from their employers. So their employers are starting to consider whether they should deliberately make health benefits unaffordable for those low-wage workers, so they can qualify for Obamacare’s tax-subsidized insurance.

That could be good for both employers and employees. The effect on taxpayers, which would switch from granting a tax credit to employers to instead granting it to the employees, is unclear.

2. Even though insurers were certain that price would be king on the Obamacare exchanges, that hasn’t led most customers to buy the plans with the cheapest premiums. As I wrote Friday, 76 percent of those shopping on the exchanges in my home state of Indiana have picked the higher-premium silver and gold plans, with only 24 percent picking bronze plans.

“There are a few geographies where we believe we are gaining share despite lower price competition which points to the value of our local market depth, knowledge, brand, reputation and networks,” WellPoint Inc. CEO Joe Swedish said during an January conference call with investors.

It’s possible that’s a result of older and sicker patients being the earliest buyers on the exchange, and that as healthier people buy coverage, they’ll gravitate to the low-cost bronze plans. But that hasn’t happened—which, as I wrote on Friday, has proved wrong hospitals’ concerns about the super-high deductible bronze plans.

Continue reading “The Weightlessness of Obamacare”

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In his “Are Employers to Blame for Our High Medical Prices?,” David Dranove takes issue with my statement in a New York Times blog post:

“One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees.”

He writes:

“The correct economic argument is a bit more nuanced. Employees do not care about the cost of their benefits; they care about the benefits. If an employer can procure the same benefits at a lower cost, the employer need not increase wages one iota. In this regard, there is nothing special about health benefits. Suppose an employer offers employees the use of company cars. Workers don’t care what the employer paid for the cars, and if the employer can purchase cars at a deep discount, it will pocket the savings.”

So far I can buy the nuance. It is something we could theorize about.

But then David he notes that:

“Employers may have an incentive to reduce benefits costs yet they are passive purchasers. With a few exceptions, nearly every American corporation outsources its healthcare benefits to insurers and ASO providers and then looks the other was as the medical bills pile up. Sure, they complain about the high cost of medical care, but they don’t take direct action by aggressively shopping for lower provider prices. Doesn’t this passivity demonstrate a lack of interest? No more so than the fact that auto makers do not aggressively shop the lowest rubber or silica prices implies that they are disinterested in the costs of tires and windows. Auto makers outsource the production of tires and windows (and most other inputs) and let the Michelins and PPGs of the world worry about rubber and silica prices. By the same token, American companies outsource the production of insurance and let the Blues and Uniteds of the world worry about provider prices. This is entirely appropriate.”

Forgive me if by now I am lost. Do we really believe that modern corporations, whose management and board of directors agonize even over an extra penny of earnings per share (EPS) – believe me, I know whereof I speak – simply outsource the procurement of major inputs and then look the other way?

They do seem to do it in health care – which is the puzzle – but they surely do not in connection with other important inputs where smart buying can add pennies to EPS.

Continue reading “Would We Be Better Off If Employers Stopped Paying for Health Insurance?”

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I welcome Leah Binder’s earlier post on this blog, written in  response to my blog post in The New York Times. To be thus acknowledged is an honor.

As an economist, I am not trained to respond to Ms. Binder’s deep insights into my psyche, dubious though it may be. Nor, alas, can I delve into hers, fascinating though that might be. Let me therefore concentrate instead just on substance.

First of all, I do not recall calling employers “stupid,” nor did I question their IQ. I do confess to having once called employee benefits managers, when addressing them at some of their usually mournful meetings, “kind-hearted social workers dressed to look like tough Republicans.” At that meeting I contrasted how carefully their company’s tough-minded VP for Procurement, Murgatroid de B. Coverly III, Princeton ’74, purchased paper clips for the company with the much more mellow approach taken by their V.P. of Human Resources to purchase health care for their company’s employees.

Benefit managers – I hate to call them BMs — really are the nicest folks. They care deeply about their employees’ well being (until, of course, the latter lose their job with the company). They worry incessantly about their company’s ever rising outlays for health insurance. And, after a cocktail or two, they regularly lament how rarely they get the attention of top management and of the board of directors – the very folks I once told to go look into a mirror in their search for the culprit behind rising health care costs.

No, when I say “employers” I really mean top management and boards of directors who make the rules. And  I did not even call those mighty ones stupid, but merely “passive payers” as did, by the way, David Dranove on this blog in his critical response to my New York Times piece. Why these usually tough and smart people have behaved so passively in buying health care for themselves and their employees remains a puzzle at the level of economic theory.

Continue reading “Yes. Employers Really Are to Blame For Our High Medical Prices”

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In a recent New York Times blog, Uwe Reinhardt places much of the blame for high and rising medical prices on passive employers. He argues that employers should work just as hard to reduce healthcare benefit costs as they work to reduce other input costs. But he then observes:

“One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees.”

I think that Reinhardt gets the economics wrong here and, in the process, he puts too much of the blame on employers. Reinhardt is right in one respect – employees care about their entire wage/benefit packages. If benefits deteriorate, employers will have to increase wages to retain workers. Thus, it seems that if an employer reduces benefit costs, it must increase wages by an equal amount. If that is true, we can understand why employers are passive.

The correct economic argument is a bit more nuanced. Employees do not care about the cost of their benefits; they care about the benefits. If an employer can procure the same benefits at a lower cost, the employer need not increase wages one iota. In this regard, there is nothing special about health benefits. Suppose an employer offers employees the use of company cars. Workers don’t care what the employer paid for the cars, and if the employer can purchase cars at a deep discount, it will pocket the savings.

Continue reading “Are Employers to Blame For Our High Medical Prices?”

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Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut. Within that group, households bringing in less than 250 percent of the FPL ($27,925 for a single person, $57,625 for a family of four) also will be eligible for help with out-of-pocket costs.

If your boss offers benefits, you won’t qualify, unless …

If your employer offers health insurance you won’t be eligible for a tax credit – though there are two exceptions to this rule:

  • If your share of the premium for your employer’s coverage would exceed 9.5 percent of your income, or
  • If your boss offers a skimpy policy that pays for less than 60 percent of an average worker’s covered benefits, you will qualify for help.

If I qualify, how much will I receive?

The size of the tax credit depends on your income, your age, how many people are in your family, and where you live.

Continue reading “Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?”

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