Retiree Health Trends and Implications of Possible Medicare Reforms – Report

Retiree Health Trends and Implications of Possible Medicare Reforms

Prepared by: Hewitt Associates LLC

Prepared for: Kaiser Medicare Policy Project

September 1997

Preparation of this report was supported by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Grant Number 96-1710B. The study consists of a review and analysis of recent trends in the provision of employer-sponsored health benefits to retirees, as well as an assessment of potential changes to employer-sponsored retiree health plans in the future, including the effects of certain proposed changes to Medicare. The views expressed in this paper are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


This report was prepared by Frank B. McArdle, Ph.D., and Dale H. Yamamoto, F.S.A., of Hewitt Associates, a global management consulting firm specializing in human resource solutions. Saline Leckman prepared the tables allowing for a comparison of trends between 1991 and 1996. Libby Terry and Nancy Newman collaborated on many aspects of this report.

For Further Information Contact:

    Frank B. McArdle, Ph.D.
    Hewitt Associates LLC
    2401 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
    Suite 450
    Washington, DC 20037
    (202) 331-1155


Executive Summary

Retiree Health Benefits Play an Important Role

Employer-sponsored retiree health benefits are a source of valuable coverage to individuals, both through the provision of coverage to early retirees before they become eligible for Medicare and as a supplement to Medicare for retirees age 65 and over. More than a third (approximately 12 million) of Medicare aged and disabled beneficiaries have employer-sponsored coverage.

In 1996, most large employers (1,000 or more employees) provided some form of retiree health benefits, of which the vast majority provided coverage both before and after age 65. However, because of rising health care costs and changes in accounting rules, and after years of expanding coverage and benefits, the prevalence of employers offering such coverage has been declining since the early 1990s; eligibility has been tightened; and more of the costs have been shared with retirees.

In addition, because Medicare pays a large portion of the costs for post-65 retirees, certain proposed changes to Medicare could potentially accelerate the decline in retiree health coverage by shifting financial liability to employers and to retirees.

The purpose of this study is twofold:

  • Document trends in retiree health benefits using an extensive database that annually tracks benefit provisions of major employers, and
  • Analyze the potential impact on retiree health plans of major Medicare reform proposals, such as increasing the age of eligibility.

Key Trends

Part I of this report analyzes key trends in retiree health plans for a constant sample1 of large companies in the Hewitt database, finding that between 1991 and 1996, the vast majority of large employers continued to provide retiree health benefits, but there were significant changes in coverage, eligibility rules, and beneficiary contribution requirements. (Figure 1 summarizes selected key findings with respect to coverage of retirees.)

Availability of coverage declined for retirees ages 65 and over

  • For retirees age 65 and over, the share of large employers offering retiree benefits declined from 92 percent in 1991 to 87 percent in 1996.2

More retirees charged premiums

  • The share of large employers requiring pre-65 retirees to pay premiums increased from 85 percent in 1991 to 95 percent in 1996, and increased for post-65 retirees from 72 percent in 1991 to 88 percent in 1996.

Eligibility for postretirement medical coverage tightened through higher age and service requirements

  • The percentage of large employers setting minimum eligibility requirements for benefits at age 55 and 10-15 years of service (versus age 50 and shorter years of service) increased from 31 percent in 1991 to 35 percent in 1996.

Financial caps placed on future retiree health obligations

  • Virtually no large employers had financial caps on their future benefit obligations in 1991. By 1996, 39 percent of large employers have some form of dollar cap on the employer's contribution for post-65 retiree coverage, and 36 percent had caps on pre-65 coverage.

More employers encourage use of managed care for retirees

  • The number of large employers offering Medicare risk HMOs has grown sharply from 7 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 1996, according to other survey data.3

Implications of Medicare Reforms

Changing our focus from existing trends to possible future changes in retiree health plans, Part II of this report considers another potential wave of changes that might result from three significant Medicare reform proposals.

Option #1: Proposed increase in the Medicare age of eligibility

During the recent Medicare reform debate in connection with the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the Senate included a provision that would have gradually raised the Medicare age of eligibility from 65 to 67, in tandem with the already scheduled increase in the Social Security eligibility age. Although dropped from the final bill, this issue will likely be revisited, and if enacted, could have a significant impact on retiree health plans. A few examples of the impact of raising the eligibility age include:

  • Raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 would mean that plan costs for a 65-year-old retiree could be two to four times higher (depending on plan design) for each year of coverage without Medicare.
  • For a typical large company with a predominately younger workforce, the employer's actuarial cost for lifetime retiree health benefits would rise about 16 percent (18 percent for a large employer with an older workforce).
  • Employer response to the eligibility age increase will vary, but the increased costs could encourage them to reduce (or eliminate) their retiree health financial commitment to active employees, while preserving coverage for current retirees, along with plan design changes.
    • For example, eliminating Medicare eligibility may increase the retiree health plan costs for a 66-year old from $1,000 per person per year to $4,000. To keep the cost effect neutral, the employer could require the retiree to pay the extra $3,000 for coverage, or redesign the plan to offset the increased cost. A cost-neutral plan redesign might include, for example, a $10,000 deductible, 50 percent coinsurance, with a $50,000 out-of-pocket limit on the retiree's obligations.

Option #2: Changes in Medicare payments to Medicare HMOs

With employers increasingly moving toward Medicare managed care to keep costs down and provide comprehensive coverage to retirees, the favorable financial impact of that strategy could be significantly affected by changes in the way Medicare pays health plans in the future.

The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 makes significant changes in payments to Medicare managed care plans, in part to increase payment rates in rural areas but also to reduce future Medicare spending increases. Employers will soon begin the process of assessing what the specific financial impact of these changes may be. The revised payment formulas may significantly alter the geography of Medicare managed care plan offerings to retirees, as well.

Smaller payment increases in certain areas of the country as a result of the 1997 legislation could potentially make managed care plans less attractive to employers and to retirees in those areas if HMO benefits are reduced or premiums rise. Alternatively, payment and other policies that support the expansion of Medicare managed care may help to stabilize retiree health benefit coverage by helping to manage employer costs over the long term.

Option #3: Proposed shift to a defined contribution program

Another option for reforming Medicare, supported by some experts in the health care community, is to shift away from having Medicare pay the cost of each beneficiary's care, e.g., a defined benefit approach, toward a defined contribution approach in which Medicare would pay a fixed sum for each beneficiary, who would then use that sum, e.g., through a voucher-like mechanism, to select coverage from competing health plans. In fact, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 creates a private fee-for-service option under Medicare+Choice. The conferees note that this private fee-for-service option “represents the first defined contribution plan in which beneficiaries may enroll in the history of the [Medicare] program.”4

Broad-based use of a defined contribution approach, while empowering retirees to choose their own health plan, also shifts financial risk to employers sponsoring retiree health plans and to retirees. In addition, that cost shift could grow over time if the defined contribution rate increases yet fails to keep pace with medical inflation. This is particularly worrisome to employers because Medicare coverage is already less generous than what large employers typically offer active employees. Comparing the plan value of Medicare benefits to those of 250 large employers participating in the 1996 Hewitt Health Value InitiativeTM database, 82 percent of the indemnity plans offered to active employees provide higher benefit levels than Medicare.

A broad-based defined contribution scheme for Medicare could also create administrative complexities for employers, in terms of the difficulty of coordinating the retiree plan with the specific Medicare health plans retirees choose, and determining an appropriate price for them.

The combination of financial and administrative impacts could thus lead employers to reassess the manner and the extent of coverage they offer to future retirees.


Retiree health benefits remain important to employees and retirees, even though the prevalence of such coverage has declined, eligibility has tightened, and more cost sharing is required of retirees. Potentially the biggest source of profound changes to employer-sponsored retiree health programs in the future would come from proposals to restructure the Medicare program. Depending on their specific nature, such changes could either create a safety net beneath employer-sponsored coverage for retirees or create additional incentives for employers to cut back. Policymakers focusing on potential reforms of Medicare would be well advised to take a more integrated look at the interactions between Medicare coverage and the employer-sponsored retiree health coverage on which millions of retirees still depend.

About the Hewitt Associates Database

Hewitt Associates has been tracking the salaried employee benefit provisions of major employers since 1972 through annual updates to its database of companies. The 1996 Hewitt database contains plan design information on 1,050 major employers, including 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Analyses of trends based on large employers (e.g., those with usually at least 1,000 employees) provides a reliable indication of the main sponsors of employer-provided coverage for retirees, because smaller firms are far less likely to provide such coverage. Ninety percent of the Hewitt database consists of companies employing 1,000 or more employees; 57 percent of the database consists of companies with 5,000 or more employees, representing roughly 25 percent of all public and private companies in the United States of that size.1318-chart1.gif

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Retiree Health Trends And Implications Of Possible Medicare Reforms:
Press Release Fact Sheet
Report Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight

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