Health-care benefits of a different sort

Dr. Ethan Brackett examines Cristina Valdez at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Like many companies, we just wrapped up open enrollment time here at Marketplace, that annual exercise of trying to make sense of health plans and what choices to make for the coming year.

Once again, you can pick between the expensive and the more expensive.

Premiums are going to go up, out-of-pocket expenses too. But some employers are trying to cushion the blow by offering benefits that are health-related -- and some that aren't.

Mary-Rose Abraham reports.


Mary-Rose Abraham: IBM doesn't count a single child among its 128,000 employees in the U.S., but kids are the focus of the company's newest health benefit.

Employees can sign up their children up for a three-month program that includes exercise, nutrition advice, online surveys that track progress and instructional videos.

[Video Narrator:] ...your child can achieve a healthy weight and your whole family will be better for it. Thanks for being a part of Healthy Nation. Remember, it's never too late to take control of your family's health.

When a child completes the program, IBM hands the employee $150.

Workers get similar payoffs for promoting their own health too -- by losing weight, giving up smoking and completing in-depth personal medical surveys.

Dr. Jane Barlow is IBM's well-being director. She says the company has spent more than $130 million on wellness incentives since 2004.

Dr. Jane Barlow: We really view investing in our employees' health as an investment in IBM.

These wellness programs are known as "soft benefits" and a growing number of companies are offering them as traditional health care benefits shrink. Soft benefits also include everything from help with adoptions to subsidized gym memberships, tuition assistance and even pet insurance.

This year, more than 100 companies have signed on with Cleveland-based Embrace Pet Insurance to give employees discounts on animal care. Alex Krooglik is the company's co-founder.

Alex Krooglik: Employers sometimes struggle to pay things like health insurance premiums. And as they pass off more and more of this to the employee, they sometimes can fill the gap with things like pet insurance. It's kind of a no-brainer for companies to say, "Hey, you know, pets are important, premiums are going up, what can we do to soften the blow?"

And it doesn't cost the employer a cent. Companies like Colgate Palmolive simply offer their employees a discount from Embrace. That appearance of goodwill could be important when employees are paying more for health care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums are up 6.1 percent this year.

Bianca diJulio is a co-author of the foundation's annual Employer Health Benefits Survey.

Bianca diJulio: Over the last six years, premiums have increased 78 percent, which is four times faster than workers earnings or inflation. This indicates that premiums are taking a bigger bite out of workers earnings.

Employers are paying more for health care too, so they're looking for ways to keep their employees out of the doctors office.

One of the most popular tools is the health risk assessment, a personal survey that can identify potential trouble spots. Two thirds of companies offer them, usually with a cash payment attached. About a third of all companies offer fitness, stop smoking programs and workplace injury prevention plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

diJulio: Healthier employees are going to be less likely to call in sick and miss work.

They may also be less likely to notice that the company health plan costs more every year and offers less.

I'm Mary-Rose Abraham for Marketplace.

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