WASHINGTON (AP) - Trying to entice cost-weary employers to keep
providing medical coverage to early retirees, the Obama
administration is making $5 billion available until the safety net
of the new health care law is in place.
Older baby boomers working for large companies - and looking to
downshift to less-demanding employment- could be the immediate
Effective next month, federal subsidies will allow employers to
recoup a big chunk of the cost of medical claims for retirees ages
55 to 64 not yet eligible for Medicare, according to a White House
official who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the official
announcement expected Tuesday.
However, in the long run, experts predict that President Barack
Obama's health overhaul will accelerate the decline of
employer-sponsored retiree coverage, by making it easier for people
to find and keep affordable coverage on their own.
Starting in 2014, the health care law forbids insurers from
denying coverage to people with medical problems, limits what the
companies can charge older individuals, and sets up competitive
health insurance markets called exchanges - where consumers can buy
a policy, in many cases with direct government assistance. Early
retirees will have options they don't currently enjoy.
"Employers have been offering these benefits because there is
no alternative source of coverage," said economist Paul Fronstin
of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. "I think they're going
to be asking themselves why they should continue offering retiree
coverage. There is no question this is something that is on
Preventing an immediate rush to the exits by employers is one of
the main goals of the new subsidy program, authorized under the
health care overhaul law. Among employers with 500 or more workers,
only 28 percent offer health benefits to early retirees, down from
46 percent in 1993, according to Mercer, a benefits consulting
Under the program, employers can get reimbursed for up to 80
percent of the cost of medical claims between $15,000 and $90,000
for their early retirees. The government payments can be used to
reduce premiums for retirees and their dependents, or by employers
to keep their own costs in check. The benefit takes effect June 1.
Large companies and labor unions successfully lobbied to include
the early retiree subsidy in the broader health overhaul. Nearly 2
million people ages 55-64 currently have health insurance through a
Congress set aside $5 billion to finance the benefit until Jan.
1, 2014, but it's unclear how long the money will last. Employers
are expected to sign up without delay.
Passage of the law has prompted employers to reassess whether
they need to keep any of their retirees on workplace health plans
over the long run.
In addition to the early retiree subsidy, the overhaul law
improves Medicare benefits by gradually closing the prescription
drug coverage gap called the "doughnut hole." That will benefit
retirees over age 65. Even now, some companies are starting to
provide their retirees with a fixed payment for health care, a
voucher that limits their own exposure.
"Once the insurance exchanges are up and running, it provides a
ready vehicle for early retirees that does not exist today,"
explained Ron Fontanetta, a principal with the benefits consulting
firm TowersWatson. "You couple that with an improved Medicare drug
program, and it begs the question whether employers really need to
be in the retiree game at all."