With two of Ontario’s government parties promising to develop portable benefits plans, it’s important to remember that plan sponsors need the freedom to design and price their benefits packages, as well as stability in terms of government processes, says one expert.

“Plan sponsors are already delivering programs to a large proportion of the workforce and they need stability, they need freedom of design,” says Jennifer Schmidt, a principal at Mercer Canada. “They have to build their total rewards package, especially in this age of what everyone is calling ‘the war for talent.’ You can’t take away tools that they have.”

Ahead of the upcoming provincial election, Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca introduced the party’s economic platform, which includes providing all Ontario workers with portable drug, dental and mental-health services. It said employers without comparable benefits would be required to enrol their staff while offering employees the option to opt out.

Read: Ontario Liberals promising portable drug, dental and mental-health services

The current Progressive Conservative Party is also considering a portable benefits program for employees in the gig economy, retail and hospitality sectors who don’t currently have health, dental or vision coverage. Workers would be able to keep their benefits even if they change jobs, said the province in a press release in February 2022.

While both proposals reference gig and other precarious workers, Schmidt notes all employers have to manage their businesses competitively. Every sector is different, she says, adding some industries focus more on compensation while others focus on perks and other benefits beyond traditional insured benefits.

“They have to align their corporate goals and their benefits and total rewards philosophies. They need to be able to deal with their bargaining environments. They need to be able to deal with their attraction and retention situations, which are different industry by industry. The questions we have are: How are the plans going to be funded? How are they going to be managed? How are they going to be integrate with private plans? And how are they going to provide the stability to private plan sponsors so that they can continue to deliver excellent programs?”

Read: Ontario mulling implementing new ‘portable benefits’ for precarious workers

At the same time, an agreement reached between the federal Liberals and New Democratic Party at the end of March is aiming to prioritize work on a national dental-care and pharmacare program.

This move also comes back to integration and giving private benefits plan sponsors the tools to make decisions and the understanding of how it could potentially impact their benefits provision, says Schmidt. “The feds have announced things, that’s money, provincially is where it gets delivered . . . and then private plans sit on top of that, but if the underneath is shifting, it’s going to be really hard for employers and private plan sponsors to plan and to continue to enhance their benefits offerings.”

According to research conducted by Mercer in 2021, almost half (46 per cent) of employees said they trust their employer to deliver high-quality, convenient, affordable and secure personal health solutions. It also found 64 per cent of employees with access to mental-health benefits reported feeling well supported by their employers compared to 44 per cent of those without access.

“Employees with access to mental-health benefits feel supported, which means they’re more engaged, they’re more productive, they’re more loyal,” says Schmidt. “That’s what private plan sponsors’ plans do. So stability and sustainability. We don’t know how [the provincial portable benefits plan is] going to be funded and how it’s going to be managed — so that goes to both stability and sustainability.”

Read: Liberals, NDP to move forward on dental-care program, national pharmacare