December 1, 2006
BY KAREN M. GUSTIN, LLIF, AMERITAS GROUP
Enhance employee productivity and the value of benefits with dental insurance.
National business surveys report that four of the top 10 concerns on the minds of business owners and management today center on employee issues:
• Should we reduce our benefits offerings to control budget costs?
• How can we handle labor shortages?
• What should we do to retain quality employees?
• How can we balance health-care
The spiraling costs of health-care benefits, complexity of plans and changes in compliance standards are straining budgets and staff resources for U.S. businesses, including meat, poultry and food processors. During the past 10 years, health-care benefits costs have increased 140 percent. Very real concerns about the future of employee benefits are creating tension between managing costs and managing people.
Medical and life insurance have traditionally been considered essential components of benefits packages. However, companies may not recognize the hidden value of dental benefits and the big dividends this option can pay in terms of improved health, productivity and satisfaction of the workforce.
High value, low cost
Dental plans are typically stable and relatively inexpensive, and they enhance employees’ productivity by encouraging them to make healthy lifestyle choices, which ultimately may lower future medical care needs.
For assistance in determining the value of dental plans and evaluating plan proposals, consider the following seven guidelines:
1. Assess the impact of dental care on employee health and productivity
Across the country, employees are taking days off to cope with problems with their teeth and gums, which can significantly affect business operations. On average, employees annually require 6.1 million days of disability and 12.7 million days of restricted activity due to oral-health issues. This amounts to 100 million lost work hours and more than 165,000 workers off the job for an entire year.
Preventive dental care could significantly reduce this loss of productivity and catch problems before they become chronic or severe. Regular dental evaluations may also reveal surprising information about seemingly unrelated health issues.
Medical professionals have identified at least 120 medical symptoms that can be detected in the mouth during routine dental checkups, including skin diseases, mental illness, diabetes, thyroid problems, leukemia, cancer or hardening of the arteries. In fact, bleeding gums, etched enamel and other tissue changes in the mouth are often the first clues to serious health problems. Medical studies have also revealed that pregnant women with gum disease are seven times more likely to have babies that are born too early and too small.
A quality dental plan can be a valuable benefit to help keep employees at work.
2. Clarify employee recruitment and retention concerns
Recent research underscores the importance of benefits for effective recruitment and retention of employees. While many companies recognize that medical insurance and a 401K plan are important benefits, they may question if dental insurance is really necessary. Some may think, “Don’t most employees just need twice-yearly checkups, which can be paid with dollars from Flexible Spending Accounts or as out-of-pocket expenses?” However, dental insurance is the one benefit employees use most, and they are more likely to access preventive dental care if it’s covered by insurance.
There are a variety of dental insurance options available to companies. For those concerned about the financial commitment for funding dental benefits, voluntary dental plans are an excellent option. A voluntary dental plan enables employers to offer employees access to affordable dental insurance without financial responsibility for the premiums.
3. Match plans to workforce demographics
Evaluate the employee group to determine the type of dental benefits needed by following these guidelines:
• Assess the dental health of employees. Review dental claims processed over the past few years to determine whether employees have taken good care of their teeth and regularly visited their dentists for cleanings and checkups.
• Typically younger employees (ages mid-30s and under) have been brought up with an emphasis on practicing good oral health care. However, for older workers, dental care may have been more sporadic due to limited finances or availability of insurance.
• Consider employee demographics. Depending on the nature of the work, some companies tend to attract single workers, while others may draw older adults or employees with families. These demographics should influence the design of the dental plan.
For example, an employer with a large number of employees who have families may want to include coverage options for orthodontia care or oral surgery procedures, such as implants, for active kids who may crack or break a tooth. Those with a younger workforce could consider incentive and reward options, such as carrying over a portion of unused dental benefit maximum dollars.
4. Clarify expectations of benefits
To assist brokers and insurance carriers in designing the right dental plan(s), identify the expectations of your employee benefits: What do you expect to accomplish by offering dental benefits? Is there competition from other employers for the same quality employees? Are dental insurance benefits important for recruitment and retention of quality employees? Are you concerned about employee health and productivity? How much can the company afford to spend on benefits? Answers to these questions will help you evaluate dental plan options.
5. Understand employees’ needs
Typically, employee acceptance of dental plans is based on the medical plan offered. If you offer a PPO or an HMO medical plan, a dental plan with similar coverage options should be considered. Conversely, if you have a high-end medical plan, employees will expect the same level for dental.
The best way to understand the needs and expectations of employees is to ask them. Develop a survey asking employees for their opinions and preferences on dental product options, dependent care needs, problems with their teeth, interest in voluntary insurance plans, and attitudes toward current benefit plans. (The right insurance carrier should be able to assist in developing and administering the survey.) The results can identify important benefit features and help the insurance carrier in designing plans that match employee expectations.
Employee feedback is especially important if a voluntary dental plan is being considered. Employees will not participate in voluntary benefits if the plans don’t fit their needs. If the plan isn’t designed correctly, employees may decide to participate one year and not the next, depending on their health needs and financial situations, which makes it difficult for carriers to maintain consistent premiums.
6. Review carriers and plan differences
Each insurance carrier has different strengths and capabilities. Some focus on medical or life insurance and offer dental plans as an extra product feature. Other carriers are dedicated experts on dental. To find the right partner, evaluate carriers for:
• Plan experience. The insurance carrier selected for dental should have experience working with employers similar in size and market scope to the group for which the plan is designed. Otherwise, the benefit options may not be the right fit.
• Variety of plan design options. Employers may want to work with carriers offering a spectrum of plan design options so benefits can be easily modified as their needs change.
• Flexibility in plan design. The insurance carrier selected should have flexibility in administrative and customer service to support the plan design. Review the carriers’ accuracy in writing dental plans, including premium history, frequency and average percentages of renewal increases, and the level of payment for claims. This information will indicate the quality of customer service, the experience of the actuaries and underwriters, and the carrier’s ability to provide flexible plans.
• Pricing consistency. In today’s insurance market, there is little consistency between carriers on plan design and pricing. Employers should ask carriers about procedure coverage levels for dental plans to ensure they match employer and employee expectations and needs.
• Persistency with customers. It’s also important to find out the carrier’s persistency ratios. Some carriers offer premium specials to recruit new customers, but then significantly increase their prices a year or two later to recover costs. Employers that cannot absorb the increases switch to new carriers.
7. Communicate benefits effectively to employees
Employees want a variety of choices for their benefits, but they also want the options thoroughly explained so they can select the right plan. Develop a plan for communicating benefit options to employees. Create a list of key messages to share through a variety of methods and group situations. Keep the messages simple, and use graphs and charts to capture employees’ attention. Although benefits are important to employees, the messages must break through the clutter of other information they receive.
If features from previous dental plans are eliminated in the new design to accommodate other services that are better suited to the group, fully explain the changes to employees. Otherwise, they may believe a lower-quality plan is being offered.
Find the Right Fit
There are many options available for dental benefits. Employers need to carefully evaluate the plan designs to find those that best fit their needs and expectations. Working with the right insurance carrier will also reduce frustrations and concerns with dental benefits. Remember that employee participation is critical to plan success. A thorough understanding of employee demographics and benefit needs is essential to offering dental benefits that match employee expectations and needs. With the right plan, a minimal investment can maximize employee productivity and satisfaction.
Karen M. Gustin, LLIF, is vice president-group marketing and managed care for Ameritas Group, a division of Ameritas Life Insurance Corp based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her tenure with Ameritas Group spans 23 years. She’s involved with the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP), serving on the board and foundation board and chairing the Statistical Task Force.