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Offering an array of health benefits is key to attracting and keeping workers

Report shows most firms provide mental health, birth control coverage


ORLANDO, Fla. — Employers have offered employees a greater variety of health and wellness benefits in the past five years, including coverage for mental health care and contraception, according to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management.

The 2014 SHRM Employee Benefits report showed that 87% of employers offer mental health coverage in 2014, down from 89% in 2013, but up from 82% in 2010. About 84% of employers reported covering prescription contraceptives for their employees in 2014, up from 82% in 2013 and 68% in 2010.

Under the health care reform law, most group health insurance plans are required to provide contraceptives without charge to the employee. Excepted are nonprofit religious organizations and, due to last week’s Supreme Court ruling, closely held for-profit companies with religious objections.

Mental health benefits also are governed by federal law. Under the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, companies with more than 50 employees that offer mental health benefits must ensure that copayments, deductibles and limits on treatment are no more restrictive than medical or surgical benefits.

Alexandria, Virginia-based SHRM interviewed more than 500 human resource professionals for its annual survey, which was released in late June during the organization’s Annual Conference & Exposition in Orlando, Florida. Twenty-eight percent said benefits offered by their companies increased in the past 12 months, while 63% said their benefit levels remained the same.

“Offering health benefits is critical to employee recruitment and retention,” Bruce Elliott, SHRM’s manager of compensation and benefits, said in a statement. “However, the rising cost of health benefits, especially health insurance, has made it challenging for some employers to continue offering it. Because of that, employers are evaluating all their benefits and making adjustments.”

During the conference, Michael Cohen, a partner at Duane Morris L.L.P. in Philadelphia, said firms should create equal employment and anti-discrimination policies that include protections for employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity to help prevent discrimination complaints.

Employers also should address inappropriate behavior by employees that can be perceived as discriminatory against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and can offer benefits to same-sex spouses, civil union partners and domestic partners of employees after checking with their insurer, he said.

“Make sure that the insurance company that you’re working with actually provides domestic partner benefits because you don’t want to start self-insuring people,” Mr. Cohen said. “It would be a beautiful gesture on your part, but I’m guessing it’s not something you want to do.”

A wellness program expert recommended that employers provide employees with medical self-care programs that teach which symptoms can be treated at home and which need medical attention.

Such programs can help reduce unnecessary medical spending for workers and employers, said Don R. Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

He said about 25% of physician visits each year are unnecessary, equaling about $227 million in excess medical costs, and 55% of emergency room visits are unnecessary, resulting in $65.6 million in extra costs to treat nonurgent medical problems.

Employers should provide printed resource guides and websites that employees can use to evaluate whether their medical symptoms can be treated at home, by a doctor and what questions to ask when they visit a physician, Mr. Powell said. Some companies offer a nurse advice hotline to discuss their symptoms.

“You’re cutting into those unnecessary doctor and ER visits,” he said. “If you’re a self-funded company ... that’s $199 per visit to $350 per ER visit right back into your pocket, so you stand to gain the most. Not to say a company that’s fully insured doesn’t stand to gain, because it allows employees not to miss work when they’re at the doctor or ER unnecessarily and because people really appreciate a medical self-care program.”