© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the June 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
A new ally in benefits cost containment: the plan member.

If your parents were anything like mine growing up, chances are you didn’t take money for granted.

Anytime I or one of my five siblings wanted a new bike, a new toy or the latest fashion trend(remember parachute pants?) my parents viewed it as an opportunity to teach us a lesson in “the value of a dollar.”

Needless to say, we didn’t always get what we wanted. And when we did, we helped pay for it ourselves with allowance earned mowing the lawn, raking the leaves or shovelling snow. And the lessons have stuck. Even still, when I’m on the verge of making an impulse purchase, I can practically hear my parents’ voices over my shoulder: “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”

It seems health benefits plan members have been spending some time with my parents.

Rather than having an entitlement mentality about their benefits plans, the 1,500 Canadian plan members surveyed for this year’s sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey are demonstrating prudent and pennywise attitudes.

Far from viewing their benefits as “free,” the plan member respondents place a high value on their plan. When given the choice between cash and their benefits, 60% said they would choose their plan over $11,000, even though very few would ever rake up that much in benefits costs in a year.

Not only do they value their plan, 73% of members surveyed either strongly or somewhat agree that they feel an obligation—that’s right, an obligation—to help their employer control benefits costs. And 72% strongly or somewhat agree that they usually consider cost when selecting a product or service provider covered by their plan.

But there are some gaps. This year’s survey also showed that many plan members don’t quite grasp how much benefits are costing their employers. Although health benefit costs have increased steadily and significantly in recent years, the percentage of members who believe their employer’s costs have increased has remained steady—at 60%—between 2003 and 2005. In other words, 40% of members surveyed either don’t believe benefits costs are rising or don’t know whether they are.

So what can plan sponsors do with this information? They can start by using it as an opportunity to educate members about the benefits plan, how much it costs and who pays for it. The British Columbia Public Service Agency does just that, providing its employees with personalized total compensation statements which detail their salary and benefits costs.

But merely informing members about their benefits costs may not be enough. Consider this a chance to teach members how to be smart consumers: how to shop for value in health products or dispensing fees, what to look for in a service provider and what questions to ask.

Members say they want to help control benefits costs. It’s up to plan sponsors to show them how.

Don Bisch

For a PDF version of this article, click here.