The shrinking unemployment rate has been a healthy turn of events for people with job-based insurance.
Eager to attract good help in a tight labor market — and unsure of the future of the Affordable Care Act — large employers are newly committed to maintaining health coverage for workers and often for their families, too, according to new research and interviews with business analysts.
Two recent surveys of large employers — one released last week by the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson and the other out Tuesday from the National Business Group on Health — suggest companies are continuing to try to control costs, while backing away from shrinking or dropping health benefits for their workers. NBGH is a coalition of large employers.
"The extent of uncertainty in Washington has made people reluctant to make changes to their benefit programs without knowing what's happening," says Julie Stone, a senior benefits consultant with Willis Towers Watson. "They're taking a wait-and-see attitude."
That's a marked change from three years ago, when many big employers — those with 1,000 employees or more — contemplated ending medical benefits and shifting workers to the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces.
In 2014, only 25 percent of big companies said they were "very confident" they would have a job-based health plan for their employees in 10 years, according to the Willis Towers Watson survey.
This year, 65 percent say they expect to offer health benefits in a decade. And 92 percent say they are very confident a company-based health plan will exist in five years.
Business analysts say many managers once eyed Obamacare marketplaces as workable alternatives for health coverage, despite the law's requirement that employers offer health insurance.
But problems with marketplace plans — including fewer offerings, rising premiums and shrinking medical networks — have made employers think twice, the analysts say.
Another big reason to maintain rich coverage is "the strength of the economy," says Paul Fronstin, director of health research at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, an industry group. "Employers are doing what they have to do to get the right workers."
Unemployment has fallen from 9.9 percent when Obamacare became law in 2010 to 4.3 percent last month, which equaled a 16-year low reached in May.
With such a steep decline, Fronstin adds, "employers are thinking, 'We need to offer this benefit for recruitment and retention.' "