Health benefits are a big part of attracting and retaining talent and employers are always on the lookout for benefits offerings that are attractive to potential new hires and appealing to their existing workforce.

One benefit that is gaining in popularity is adoption assistance. A recent article in Workforce reported that the hotel chain Hilton Corp. has added the benefit, including both a stipend to cover the expenses of the adoption process and a broader parental leave program. Both are slated to go into effect in January 2017.

According to Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader of absence, disability management and life at Willis Towers Watson, who contributed to the article, adoption assistance stipends average $10,000, and can range from $5,000 to as high as $25,000.

Just 20% of employers offer it in 2016, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Employee Benefits Survey. But Reinberg expects widespread adoption (pun intended) of the benefit as employers modernize their benefits programs.

To read the article in Workforce, click here.

According to a new survey from Willis Towers Watson, employers are increasing their efforts to achieve better health outcomes for their employees at a lower cost by implementing value-based reimbursement and payment arrangements with health insurers and providers.

This finding comes from the 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey. The survey included responses from 600 U.S. employers between June and July 2016, who collectively employ 12.2 million full-time employees.

A recent article in Workforce highlighted findings from the survey and the strategies needed to implement them. Value-based strategies employers plan to use include establishing centers of excellence (COEs) for specialty services through health plans, separate providers, or third-party vendors; implementing high performance networks; and contracting directly with service providers to secure improved pricing.

When it comes to establishing centers of excellence, one big factor to consider is the region, according to Sarah Oliver, senior consultant and health care delivery leader for Willis Towers Watson.

“We’re seeing a movement looking at strategies on a regional basis,” said Oliver. “Depending how big the population is, employers are looking for locations where they have a higher concentration of employees in order to make meaningful impact if they do implement a center of excellence. All of this would be grounded in data and what the underlying issues are.”

For the complete release from Willis Towers Watson, click here.

For the article in Workforce on the findings, click here.

A recent survey from Willis Towers Watson revealed that over a third (37%) of U.S. employers are changing plan designs to reduce employee out-of-pocket costs at the point of service. The same percentage of employers (37%) are lowering premiums contributions for low-income workers. By 2018, the number of employers taking these steps is expected to rise to 53% and 51%, respectively.

These findings come from the 21st Annual Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, completed by 600 employers in June and July 2016.

In the face of continued cost pressures, employers have gradually increased the amount that employees pay for employer-sponsored health care. Increases have come in the form of larger premium contributions, higher copays and coinsurance, health plans with higher deductibles, and surcharges for coverage for working spouses eligible for health insurance from their own employers. Now, however, more employers are becoming concerned that health care is becoming unaffordable, especially for low-wage workers.

Other actions employers are taking to improve affordability include seeding health savings accounts (HSAs) tied to account-based health plans (ABHPs) to help employees close the gap created by the higher deductibles associated with such plans. Of employers that offer ABHPs, 85% are seeding HSAs with an average seed amount of $600 per year for employee-only coverage and twice that amount for employees with family coverage.

These steps employers are designed to ensure employees’ physical and financial health and well-being as well as on-the job productivity. The number of employers taking similar steps is expected to rise significantly over the next two years.

Willis Towers Watson this week released a list of the top 10 questions employees should ask their employers about 2017 plan offerings before selecting new plans or renewing existing ones. The questions are based the results of our 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, which quizzed employers on their expected cost increases for 2017 and the actions they plan to take to manage costs while delivering quality care.

According to the survey, employers expect an average increase of 5.0% in total health care costs in 2017. Areas of focus for plan changes are prescription drugs, spouse and dependent coverage, and expensive medical procedures such as specialized surgeries.

In addition to questions about steps employers might have taken to keep costs down, we suggested that employees ask which health plans their preferred doctors and other providers accept; what new benefits–including voluntary benefits–employers might have added; and whether employers have introduced new technologies such as a private benefits exchange to help employees select and manage benefits.

For the complete list of 10 questions, read the press release here.

A recent slideshow in Employee Benefit Advisor identified the top 10 worst states for student loan debt. As an employer, should you care whether any of the states in which you hire are on the list? Based on an article by Randy Abbott, a senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, in Employee Benefit News (EBN) earlier this year, the answer could be “yes.”

According to Abbott, a growing number of employers interested in recruiting and retaining Millennials are offering benefits related to student debt, including debt forgiveness, assistance in paying off debt, and financial advising. A recent Willis Towers Watson survey showed that 4% of employers currently have student debt refinancing programs, but by 2018, that number could grow to 26%.

To find out which states are the worst for student debt, see the complete article in Employee Benefit Advisor.

To read Randy Abbott’s article in EBN on student loan repayment plans and advice for employers considering adding them to their employee benefits, click here.

In the wake of big tech companies such as Netflix and Facebook making headlines for expanding their parental leave offerings, other companies are looking to stay competitive in the war for talent by adding these benefits to their own benefit packages.

According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, covered in a recent article for Bloomberg, just 26% of employers offer paid maternity leave, 21% offer paid paternity leave, and 20% offer paid adoption leave.

But this won’t be the case for long, according to Willis Towers Watson national practice leader, Jackie Reinberg. Quoted in the Bloomberg article, Reinberg said: “The hottest thing out there is the area of parental leave. Organizations are very, very rapidly looking at creating it as a retention tool or an attraction tool, or increasing it.”

To read the complete article in Bloomberg BNA, click here.

According to the Willis Towers Watson 21st annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, U.S. employers expect their health care costs to increase 5% this year and next with plan changes, and 6% without plan changes. These increases are at historical lows, but slightly higher than in 2015 and still more than twice the rate of inflation.

The survey also found that in the face of these continuing cost pressures, employers will make modest to moderate changes to their plans and programs to manage costs. However, according to Julie Stone, a national health care practice leader for Willis Towers Watson, given employee affordability concerns, most employers will focus on changes to high-cost benefits rather than on changes that would add to employees’ out-of-pocket costs.

The high-cost services that will get the most attention are pharmacy and especially specialty pharmacy, and surcharges for coverage of working spouses who are eligible for coverage from their own employers.

Employers also are encouraging employees to use centers of excellence for specialty care that have proven track records of delivering quality services at less cost. Telemedicine is being adopted by employers as another source of cost savings. In an article in Politico reporting on the survey and employer adoption of telemedicine, Allan Khoury, a senior consultant for Willis Towers Watson, said, “We think the savings are real.”

To read the press release announcing survey results, click here.

To read two articles on the findings, click here for Kaiser Health News and here for Politico.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced an initiative to dedicate more than $200 million in federal funding to personalized or “precision” medicine. In December of that year he signed into law bipartisan legislation appropriating the funds. And in early March of this year (2016), the White House hosted a Precision Medicine Summit where more than 40 private sector organizations presented commitments they’ve made and ideas they have for accelerating progress in the field.

As part of this effort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the White House announced that it is seeking one million people to participate in a 10-year research effort. Volunteers will be asked to submit their genetic and lifestyle information so government scientists can study it to better understand the causes and cures of some of the most serious diseases affecting Americans. In a recent article in the New York Times NIH Director Francis Collins described it “the largest, most ambitious research project of this sort ever undertaken.”

The target for 2016 is to enroll 79,000 people; the hope is to hit the one million goal by 2019.

For employers, study findings could be used to improve wellness programs and develop better tools for anticipating, preventing, and managing chronic illness among employees. Findings also could be used by HR professionals overseeing health plan design to tailor benefit offerings to better meet the needs of employees who suffer from or are at risk for disease.

To read the complete article in the New York Times, click here.

For more on precision medicine, see our first post on this topic from May of 2015.

A trend toward coinsurance over copays results in Medicare beneficiaries paying higher out-of-pocket prices for their prescription drugs. It also makes it harder for seniors to predict costs because drug prices fluctuate.

Unlike copays, which are flat rates, coinsurance rates are based on a percentage of total costs. Coinsurance was previously limited to higher cost specialty drugs, but its adoption in other drug tiers now is increasing.

According to an analysis from Avalere Health, reported in a recent article in Kaiser Health News, more than half (56%) of drugs covered under the Part D Medicare benefit will use a coinsurance model in 2016. Medicare Advantage plans are also making the change, but at a much lower pace. Just 26% of drugs offered through Medicare Advantage plans will require coinsurance in 2016.

Rising pharmacy costs have been a concern not just for seniors on Medicare, but for health care consumers and providers generally. Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) have been working to manage the rising cost of drugs to avoid passing on higher costs to employees.

To learn more about the Avalere analysis, click here. To read the complete article in Kaiser Health News, click here.

According to new data from Willis Towers Watson, 56% of U.S. employers are confident that the public exchange will be “a viable option” for pre-65 retirees within the next two years. The data comes from the 2016 Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, which gathered responses from 467 employers representing 12.1 million employees.

Additionally, the survey found that 72% of employers intend to make moderate to significant changes to their existing pre-65 retiree health benefits. The willingness of employers to make these changes can be attributed to the continued rise in health care costs for this segment of the employee population. In other words, costs rise, and employers need to take action.

In a recent article for Business Insurance, John Barkett, senior director of policy affairs for Willis Towers Watson, said, “Employers are seeking alternatives to providing their retirees with the same group health care coverage they offer active employees. Many employers have already transitioned their post-65 retirees to original Medicare plus private individual Medicare plans or are planning to. This keeps costs down and retiree satisfaction up. However, because Medicare is not available to younger retirees, employers are looking elsewhere for a solution.”

To read the article in Business Insurance, click here.

To read the complete press release from Willis Towers Watson, click here.