Health plans drop working spouses
A growing number of companies are looking to clamp down on rising health care costs by dumping coverage for their employees' working spouses.
Others are requiring their workers to pay extra money to cover a spouse who could get health insurance elsewhere. And some may even consider making employees pay the full cost of insuring their children.
The moves are viewed as low-hanging fruit for companies that are expecting higher costs next year under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“We're seeing costs going up,” said J.T. Shilling, a benefits consultant who runs the Pittsburgh office of consulting firm Mercer. “Taxes, fees, more enrollment are driving up costs, and employers are looking for ways to reduce costs. And this is a pretty easy one.”
The higher charges and exclusions for spouses are part of a national trend that's hitting home in Western Pennsylvania.
Excela Health, the owner of three hospitals in Westmoreland County, told employees this month that it would no longer provide health coverage to spouses who are offered insurance from their own employer, starting Jan. 1.
“Many businesses are moving to employee-only coverage when a spouse's employer also provides benefits,” Excela spokeswoman Robin Jennings said.
More employers are taking a look at the strategy because Obamacare doesn't specify that family health plans cover spouses, said James McTiernan, health care consultant with Triad Gallagher, a Downtown benefits firm.
Although the law requires plans to cover children, it allows companies to pass along the full cost of so-called dependent coverage to the employee, McTiernan said.
“Some employers were in fact contemplating” whether to make workers pay for their children, he said. “It's one way to mitigate the cost.”
But, he cautioned, the few companies that considered the policy have delayed a decision until 2015, when the government will begin enforcing a requirement that employers with 50 or more workers provide health insurance or face a penalty.
Denying coverage for a working spouse who has access to other health insurance is an extreme example of how companies are trying cut costs, experts said. But many others, such as PNC Bank, are imposing a surcharge on their employees' spouses.
For several years, Downtown-based PNC has charged spouses an additional $125 a month to stay on PNC's health plan if they can get coverage elsewhere, spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel said. She declined to say whether the move was in response to the health care law.
Nationally, a Mercer survey found that 18 percent of large employers had a working-spouse surcharge or a no-coverage policy for working spouses in 2012, up from 15 percent in 2011.
While most employers haven't gone to the extreme of dropping working spouses, “there's no question that employers for years have been concerned about who's covered under their plans,” said Lorin Lacy, a health care consultant for Downtown benefits firm Buck Consultants.
“I do think it's a trend that we will see grow. Every employer is struggling with, ‘How do we control these costs?'” Lacy said. “Most of our clients have a philosophy that says, ‘We should be responsible for our own employees.'”
But the money-saving strategies are not without risk for employers. Companies could face an employee backlash over what could be seen as a benefit cut, as well as the potential for the moves to hurt recruitment and retention.
“There's always a downside,” said James McTiernan, a health care consultant with Triad Gallagher, a Downtown benefits firm. “There's an employee relations downside.”
There's also a chance that one spouse might have to accept less coverage and a higher cost than the other. That's why experts recommend employers implement a surcharge, rather than excluding spouses.
“If it's a surcharge, it makes the employee have to shop for the best plan,” Shilling said.
Starting in January, the law will add fees and taxes that are expected to further drive up health costs for companies.
Total health benefit cost per employee in 2012 was $10,575 on average, up 3 percent from the prior year, according to Mercer. And costs were expected to rise 5 percent this year.
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Add Alex Nixon to your Google+ circles.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pennsylvania Game Commission reaps revenue from shale gas under game lands
- University of Pittsburgh researchers revisit war of electric currents
- Energy Spotlight: Minking Chyu
- Program lets public service workers be forgiven for student debt
- Asian bug threatens oranges in Florida
- As historic breakup nears, Alcoa works to redefine its ‘advantage’
- Paying pals digitally catches on
- Older workers try to cut back on hours at job
- Black Friday chaos dwindles thanks to earlier deals, online sales
- Batteries key to alternative energy’s success
- Fuel cell standoff slows car technology’s rise in popularity