5 Employee Benefits Trends to Watch in 2018

Look for more digital health programs and wellness initiatives at companies next year.

By Susan Johnston Taylor, Contributor |Dec. 6, 2017, at 12:03 p.m.

Still, health care is just one aspect of employee benefits that could be evolving in the new year. Aside from available health plans, student loan assistance and wellness programs could also become more widespread benefits.

Here’s a look at the benefits experts predict could be in store for 2018.

1. More health reimbursement arrangements. Health reimbursement arrangements are employer-funded, tax-advantaged employer health plans that reimburse employees for out-of-pocket expenses. They can be used by the employee to pay for their portion of health care premiums, as well as qualified medical expenses such as lab fees, eye exams or prescriptions.

Last year, Congress passed a new law allowing smaller employers to use health reimbursement arrangements to pay for non-group plan health insurance premiums, including plans purchased on health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. Tacchino predicts that more employers will start offering health reimbursement arrangements. “With [health reimbursement arrangements] allowing individuals to use the funds for premiums, that’s another incentive for employers to move that way,” he says.

2. More digital health offerings. Healthcare costs and decision-making increasingly fall on the employee rather than the employer or health plan. “Under the context of this [consumer-directed health plan], Americans are responsible for their pre-deductible spend,” explains Jeff Oldham, senior vice president at Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits management platform.

In response to this reality, a growing number of digital health tools like Maven Clinic and Vim aim to help consumers manage their health care spending and decision-making, Oldham adds. For instance, Maven Clinic’s Maven Maternity is an employee benefit that offers online and in-person health care to expectant and new mothers, while Vim helps patients find in-network providers, track spending and get care notifications. Many of these tools are mainly available through certain employers but Oldham predicts that these digital health tools will be available more widely directly to consumers. “It all starts on the employer side before it moves its way down to consumer level,” he says.

3. Employee wellness programs. Wellness incentives have been available at some employers for several years. For instance, an employer might offer a cash incentive to employees who quit smoking or won an office step challenge. According to David Johnson, vice president and benefits consultant at human resources and actuarial consulting firm Segal Consulting, these programs still exist but they’re evolving away from cash incentives.

“Financial incentives are good at driving certain things like getting a flu shot or getting biometric screens,” Johnson says. “They don’t work for driving long-term behavioral change.” Instead, some employers now enter those who meet wellness goals into a company lottery. “In lieu of cash, they’re giving away things like tickets to sporting events or theater events,” Johnson says. It’s cheaper for the employer to offer a lottery and research shows unexpected rewards can bring greater happiness than predictable ones.

Johnson says many employers now offer health coaching, and they’re encouraging even young, healthy employees to meet with a coach at least once, so they know what wellness programs might be available to them.

4. Student loan assistance. Student loans are a major stressor for workers, especially millennials. A small but growing number of employers now offer student loan assistance. According to a 2017 survey by Society for Human Resource Management, 4 percent of SHRM members offer this perk. Oldham expects those numbers to continue to grow in 2018.

Student loan programs come in a few different flavors. Some employers provide money toward employees’ student loans, while others don’t contribute to loan payments but provide access to third parties that might offer a lower interest rate on a refinanced student loan.

A bill introduced in Congress last January, the Student Loan Repayment Assistance Act of 2017, would give employers a tax credit for providing student loan payment assistance for employees, similar to how medical care is tax-deductible for the employer, and provide a greater incentive for employers to help with student loans.

For employees with college-bound children, employee programs like Gradvisor allow automatic payroll deductions into a 529 college savings account, Oldham adds.

5. Identity theft coverage. Some employers already provide identity theft coverage to employees or make it an optional benefit, and with several major data breaches this year, Oldham anticipates more employers will offer this benefit. Identity theft insurance reimburses costs associated with clearing up ID theft issues, such as mailing costs and, in some cases, attorney fees, according to the Information Insurance Institute, a nonprofit consumer education organization.

Global advisory company Willis Towers Watson reports that 35 percent of employers offered an optional ID theft benefit in 2015 and that number could double in 2018. “Traditionally it was a voluntary product,” Oldham says. “We’re seeing employers buying it for their employees as a way to recruit and retain employees.”