High deductible health insurance plans are a fact of life, particularly for the employees of small businesses. But it doesn’t have to hurt morale or loyalty among workers. There are ways small-business owners can help defray some of the costs if high deductible insurance plans are all they can offer.

“With the Affordable Care Act there is clearly a movement toward higher deductible plans,” says Barry Sloane, CEO of Newtek, a health insurance agency for small businesses. “Unfortunately higher deductibles are a fact of life whether you live in New York or Nebraska.”

In an effort to keep costs down and incentivize employees to curb some of the unnecessary visits to the doctor or specialists, employers of all sizes are making high deductible plans an option, and in some cases the only one.

That’s particularly true with small-business owners who can barely afford to offer health insurance, let alone plans with low deductibles and limited cost sharing. As a result, experts say the era of high deductible health insurance plans and more of the burden being passed on to the employee is here and will likely stay. That change in the way health care is offered to employees can breed resentment and anger among workers, which in turn can have a negative impact on the overall business.

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But there are things small-business owners can do to reduce the burden. One way, according to Kevin Luss, owner of Luss Group, is to offer employees a medical bridge policy to neutralize the deductible and other out-of-pocket costs employees face.

At Luss Group, brokers work with employers to create a health plan that limits the cost sharing for the least frequent things like hospitalization, surgeries and outpatient procedures and with the savings, a medical bridge policy is taken out to insure employees from high deductibles associated with those expensive but less frequent medical needs. There are numerous ways to design the plan, but one option could be if one of the employees is admitted to the hospital he or she gets a lump sum of $3,000 in addition to a daily amount for the length of the admission.  In that case, an employee who has a $5,000 deductible would only pay part of that out of pocket because the medical bridge policy covers the rest.

“The employer saves money by offering high deductible plans and uses part of the savings for the bridge plan,” says Luss. “These plans aren’t very expensive and in the long rung the employer saves money.”  The rules and what is offered varies state by state.

For many small businesses footing the bill for a medical bridge policy isn’t an option, but they can offer it as a supplemental choice for employees. According to Nancy Thompson, senior vice president and director of sales at CBIZ Benefits and Insurance, employers who are providing high deductible plans can also offer the option of hospital indemnity and critical illness insurance, which will defray some of the costs associated with the high deductible plan. While it will cost employees more money, albeit not a lot, in exchange they’ll get one-on-one counseling with a benefits consultant, so they are making the right choices when it comes to their healthcare.

“Employees are going to experience gaps in coverage that they haven’t in the past,” says Thompson. “The right supplemental product is paramount when you go to a high deductible plan.”

Hand in hand with offering high deductible plans is providing the ability for employees to use pretax dollars for medical costs, which is where health savings accounts come into play. With a health savings account, funds contributed aren’t taxed and the money accumulated can be rolled over to the next year. Some employers who contribute to health savings accounts can increase their contribution to offset any bad feelings from offering a high deductible plan, says Sloane.

Another option, according to Richard Mann, Chief Product Officer at PlanSource, is offering a defined contribution toward benefits. Basically it’s a predetermined amount the employer agrees to contribute to each employee’s benefits spending.

“This helps employers control spending because the amount is fixed, but allows employees to use the amount in whatever way they think is best,” says Mann.

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At the end of the day, knowledge may be the best way a small-business owner can help their employees with their health-care costs. The whole idea behind these high deductible health plans is to get people to think before they get that test done or have blood drawn.

According to Sloane, arming employees with all the information about the plan, ensuring they know which doctors are in network and out of network, and all the benefits associated with the plan (including preventive care), can go a long way in keeping out of pocket costs down. It’s also a good idea to give employees access to the actual costs of health-care services, adds Mann. Knowing, for example, that the cost of a MRI can vary by as much as $1,000 will make employees more savvy consumers of health care, he says.  

“It’s very valuable for the business to make an investment in the HR department and educate their staff as to how to keep claims down,” notes Sloane. “People need to pay more attention to health care. It’s not as simple as it used to be.”

 


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