HBLC 2015: Moving the Needle in Benefits

Speakers at this year's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference explore the challenges and opportunities facing wellness, retirement security and more.

By Andrew McIlvaine and David Shadovitz

When it comes to defining "wellness," nearly everyone, it seems, has their own definition. This was demonstrated early on during the third annual Human Resource Executive ® Health & Benefits Leadership Conference yesterday by HRE benefits columnist Carol Harnett, who began the conference's opening general session-a panel on "Maximizing the Value of Health and Financial Wellness"-by asking the audience to close their eyes, breathe deeply and think of three words that define wellness. She then asked them to share their answers with her via text message. 

"Fullness, centered, caring," Harnett read from her phone. "Peace, strength, flexibility. Healthy, happy, secure."

This variety of perspectives on wellness reflects the sometimes harsh debate over how to determine the effectiveness of wellness programs, she said. Critics charge that they're coming up short on return-on-investment, while others say that focusing only on employees' physical health misses the point. 

"Critics say 'Look at the ROI,' and they're not wrong: Wellness ROI has not delivered what a lot of folks were looking for," said Harnett. 

Harnett asked her three panelists-each of them representing companies that have had some success with their wellness programs-to explain the philosophy behind their programs. 

"We put our heart and soul into a theme we thought our employees could relate to, which is 'You'll be the best you can be,' " said Deborah Borton, senior director of benefits at Keurig Green Mountain Inc. Her company, formed by the merger of socially conscious coffee-roaster Green Mountain and "analytical, engineering-focused" Keurig, maker of the K-cup coffee-brewing technology, was able to immediately garner a 50-percent wellness participation rate among its 5,800 employees. 

http://www.hreonline.com/images/ThinkstockPhotos-468311478HBLCL.jpgChipotle Mexican Grill, the Denver-headquartered restaurant chain (which sources all of its ingredients from sustainable agriculture) believes that "it's important for us to empower everyone to make their own best decisions," said benefits analyst Lindsay Horning. "Our tagline is 'empower yourself, engage your mind.' "

At Nelnet, a Lincoln, Neb.-based education-payment servicer, the emphasis is on a "whole-person" approach to wellness, one that promotes financial, personal and professional well-being, as well as physical well-being, said Kelly McKeever, executive director of people services. The company boasts a 90-percent participation rate and a 75-percent engagement rate on wellness, she said. 

Nelnet's financial-wellness strategy included boosting its 401(k) auto-enrollment default rate from 3 percent to 5 percent after it discovered that too many employees were allowing their contribution rates to stay at 3 percent, said McKeever. 

At Keurig Green Mountain, the company's financial-wellness offerings include one-on-one sessions between employees and personal-finance advisers, and a financial literacy class that is "extremely popular," said Borton. Chipotle offers its young retail employees (the average age of its restaurant workers is 17) prizes for achieving certain financial goals, said Horning.

Community service is also a vital part of the company's wellness program, she said. Waterbury, Vt.-based Keurig Green Mountain allows each employee to take paid time off to perform 52 hours of community service each year. 

Peer support is also an important component of a successful wellness strategy, said McKeever. Nelnet's Facebook page includes testimonials from employees about how much weight they've lost by participating in programs and challenges. "Those testimonials get hundreds of 'likes,' " she said. 

Peer support can only go so far: Executive support for wellness is absolutely necessary, said Tom Cantwell, vice president for total rewards and HR systems at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. He spoke at a breakout session titled "Turning Disengaged Executives into Wellness Champions."

When the hospital launched its wellness program in 2009, some of its executives were reluctant to serve as wellness champions, even some who engaged in rigorous physical activity outside of work, such as long-distance bicycling, he said. 

"Their attitude was, 'Work isn't the place for this, and besides, it's nobody's business what I do on my time,' " said Cantwell. "We told them that employees focus on your words, not your actions. Leaders who aren't engaged [in] wellness are essentially telling their own employees that it's OK not to be engaged."

The holdout executives relented. The hospital's wellness engagement scores have since climbed to 77 percent, he said.

Building on the references to financial wellness at the opening general session, two leading experts also led a session on the current state of retirement security today and possible public-policy changes that could lead to greater financial security for employees in the future.

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, began by sharing some of the ongoing projects being pursued by the Washington-based BPC, including those in the retirement-security arena. (BPC's efforts in that area are co-chaired by former North Dakota Sen.Kent Conrad and WL Ross & Co. Vice Chairman James B. Lockhart, a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.)

Sprinkled throughout Hoagland's remarks were a number of disturbing figures, including estimates that there is presently a $4.1 trillion deficit savings gap.

Hoagland said he's "always struck by the complexity, the confusion, the number of rules and regulations, and governance that makes things impossible for the average individual."

The center's goal, he said, is to come up with some specific recommendations aimed at addressing these issues.

Hoagland said the center hoped to have specific proposals in the hands of Congress by the fall.

"The trend data," he said, "isn't just a concern because it relates to the individual, but also because of how it relates to national economic policy. We are running a deficit in this country of close to $500 billion. I give [the administration] credit, the deficit has come down. But the overall trend, in terms of public 'dissavings,' isn't good."

Hougland noted that the Social Security Trust Fund will exhaust all of its assets by 2033. On a practical level, he said, what that means is that, in 18 years, those in the room under the age of 49 will see their benefits reduced by 20 percent if nothing is done.

In terms of retirement readiness, Hougland pointed out, low-income individuals are especially at risk, because they depend on their Social Security checks more than those with higher incomes once they retire.

Among the specific issues the BPC is focusing on today is increasing the financial well-being of employees at small businesses, particularly those who may not receive any retirement support from their employers.

Further, "we are looking at leakage," he said. "People change jobs faster than they used to and often can't move their 401(k)s easily-so they're just cashing [them] out."

"We're also trying to figure out if there needs to be a program that would allow for annuities," he added.

Other areas being looked at, he said, include "decreasing the administrative and legal burdens of employers, encouraging greater adoption during enrollment and automatic escalation, [and] making it easier for low-income earners and part-timers to participate."

In his remarks, James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, shared some figures of his own and detailed the vast array of issues on the Washington-based group's radar.

Klein predicted the integration of personal health and financial well-being would be a major priority for employers going forward. Employers, he said, need to break down some of the barriers and eliminate the separate silos.

More specifically, Klein said a strong case could be made to lower the catch-up provision of 401(k) plans to age 45 (from 50), as well as allowing for favorable tax changes for retirement-plan distributions that are used not just for retirement-income purposes, but also for retiree health, disability or long-term care.Other proposed changes, he said, include making it easier for employers to get together and develop multi-employer plans.

Klein said he's given a lot of speeches over the years in which he's made the point that the biggest challenge facing retirement is high healthcare costs. "If it costs so much to sponsor a health plan," he explained, "there's going to be less left over to do creative things on the retirement side."

If the Affordable Care Act works as it's intended to, he added, one possible outcome could be more resources aimed at addressing retirement challenges, as employers increasingly look to exchanges as a means for providing healthcare coverage and thereby free up funds.


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Apr 9, 2015
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