Health plans keep staff healthy and happy
Company health plans no longer seen as 'fringe benefit'

by Derek Abma
Special to the Ottawa Business Journal

A "HEALTHY" compensation package is becoming increasingly important in attracting and keeping employees, research shows, and it's about more than the money saved on medical items and services.

A recent survey by Ipsos-Reid on behalf of drug firm Aventis Pharma Inc. of about 1,500 people across Canada showed 72 per cent would not give up their health plan for $2,000, $5,000 or $8,000 in cash. Even at the highest amount, 66 per cent still chose their health plan.

"It used to be that benefits were thought of as fringe; people used to talk about 'fringe benefits'," says John Elliott, manager of external affairs for Aventis Pharma. "I think we can say now that employer health benefits are no longer fringe; they're a core part of why people work for companies that have those kinds of plans."

Ottawa's Cognos Inc., with about 1,300 employees, functions on the basis that attractive health plans are crucial to retaining key employees.

"The critical element of our people strategy is to attract, retain and engage top talent," says Marilyn Smith-Grant, Cognos' senior benefits strategist. "So what we've done is we've structured our health plan to ensure that it is competitive."

The company pays 100 per cent of health premiums for employees, which includes coverage for prescription drugs, out-of-country emergencies, chiropractic services, physiotherapy and dental.

A lot of research went into making sure the Cognos plan compared favourably to other employers in Ottawa, Ms Smith-Grant says, adding not requiring employees to pay any of their premiums is an advantage Cognos has over many other companies. A drug card will soon be added so employees don't have to make initial payments for drug costs covered by the plan, she says, adding seven of out eight technology firms in the city provide such cards.

Meg Dussault, a product marketing professional at Cognos, says her company health plan is "part of the mix" of things that's made her want to stick with the company for the past five years.

"I think a good health plan is critical," she says. "It is a high-performance company, so it's great to be part of the culture and to be supported from a health perspective so that lots of things are covered."

Part of that support for health, she notes, includes Cognos' onsite gym and exercise programs.

Asked if she would accept cash in exchange for her health plan, Ms Dussault says: "Obviously, we've all got our price somewhere. But at first blush, I'd say no; I want the health plan ... Is it a money issue? It's more than that. It's a certain comfort level."

Nortel Networks Corp., with about 6,000 employees in Ottawa, offers multi-tiered health plans. A basic package comes at no cost to employees, but individuals can opt for more extensive coverage, chipping in for portions of the premiums. Advanced plans include coverage for more enriched dental, optical and disability services.

Brenda Valois, spokeswoman for Nortel, says the company covers, on average, 85 per cent of health plan premiums and employees can review each year what plan is right for them.

"The nice part is it's your choice based on your circumstances and if your circumstances change," she says.

While many multinational companies have unique health plans for different countries, taking into account differences in government support for health care, Nortel offers employees in Canada and the United States essentially the same benefits.

"This makes things simpler for employees, including in situations when they transfer from one country to the other," says Ms Valois.

The value people see in their health plans cannot be measured solely in dollar terms, Mr. Elliott says. The average cost of health insurance for an employee is about $1,500 a year, with the average amount of claims about equal. Older workers claim more and place a greater importance on their health benefits, but not as much as might be expected, given the difference in health needs between the ages, Mr. Elliott says.

"If you're 30 years old and you've got no health problems, you're behind for sure. You're just paying in and you're getting nothing out," Mr. Elliott says, noting many employees pay parts of their health plan premiums.

"I think, in the back of everyone's mind, they accept that crazy proposition just in case something does happen, in case they are diagnosed with cancer tomorrow and the Neupogen that they're prescribed, which costs $3,000 a treatment, is not covered by the provincial government."

It would cost employers a lot more in salaries to give the same kind of satisfaction that can be bought with a health plan, Mr. Elliott says. Providing health benefits also establishes a positive image of the company in the employee's mind, while healthier staff are more productive and less likely to take sick days, Mr. Elliott says.

The Aventis survey showed a correlation between job satisfaction and health plans. Of those who said they were satisfied with their jobs, 59 per cent said their health packages met their needs. Of those who were not satisfied with their jobs, 34 per cent said their health plans met their needs.

By Derek Abma


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