5 employee benefits to add to the campus mix

New and renewed ideas for health, wellness and retirement benefits in higher ed
By: | Issue: December, 2015
November 17, 2015

Do today’s employee benefit packages resemble those that colleges and universities offered in the past? Hardly.

Wellness benefits have transformed into all kinds of unique offerings, ranging from on-site vegetable gardens to fitness centers. Meanwhile, traditional “do-everything-for-me” benefits have disappeared. Schools now expect employees to take action, change behaviors and make decisions that positively impact their health, finances and lifestyles.

Consider account-based health plans with high deductibles and “behavioral economics” that blend medical and wellness programs, says Norman Jacobson, senior vice president and the higher education benefits practice leader at the New York City office of Sibson Consulting.

“Employees are not going to get their account contribution, which is significant, if they don’t follow through on not just taking a blood test, but taking action to improve their health—like seeing a nutritionist or going to Weight Watchers,” he says.

Likewise, more schools are moving from fixed retirement contributions to matching contributions. In the past, employees received their employer’s contribution automatically, regardless of how much they saved. But many employees practice poor saving habits. So higher ed institutions have shifted to the matching model as an engagement strategy that links contributions to the amount of money workers save.

Institutions are also moving toward defined-contribution retiree health plans.

Instead of paying a fixed percentage of the retiree’s medical costs, more colleges allocate a specific dollar amount per retiree, each year, to limit the institution’s exposure and reduce annual cost fluctuations, says Michele Moreau, managing director of the higher education practice at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Denver, a global insurance brokerage and risk management services firm.

Benefits covering health insurance coverage gaps also are becoming popular. The 17-campus University of North Carolina system offers cancer insurance. Purdue University in Indiana offers critical illness insurance. Many institutions—including the University of Cincinnati, The University of Chicago and the University of South Florida—offer personal accident insurance.

But because the Affordable Care Act expanded the number of employees who qualify for benefits to those working an average of 30 hours a week, the market has become “topsy-turvy,” Moreau says. Different trends may emerge next year as schools “look back at the juggling they’ve had to do in 2015,” she says. “They’re really looking for some stability.”

Are your institution’s benefits an employee magnet? Take a look at six offerings that can be added to the benefits mix at little or no cost.


Tempe, Arizona-based Bryan University offers telemedicine—that is, having healthcare providers who can remotely evaluate, diagnose and treat patients using telecommunications technology—to its 100 benefits-eligible employees.

“We needed to do something to offset some of the increases in premiums that we felt were going to come in the years ahead,” says Julie Phillips, vice president of employee excellence at the for-profit institution.

Officials also felt telemedicine would increase productivity: Employees use the benefit to fill prescriptions and for treatment of common ailments ranging from colds to ear infections. “Folks don’t have to make an appointment to see a doctor or take time off work,” Phillips says.

The university pays $5 a month per participant, but the program has helped slash Bryan’s annual insurance renewal rate in half, from a 12 percent increase in 2014 to 6 percent in 2015, says Phillips. With fewer doctor’s visits overall, less insurance benefits are being tapped, and treatment is often more immediate without having to wait up to a couple of weeks for an appointment slot.

Body and mind connections

The University of Arizona integrated its healthcare benefits and wellness programs, says Darci Thompson, director of well-being and engagement at the university, which employs more than 12,000 people. In practice, this means more choice. Employees can see their own doctor or one of nine licenced professionals available on campus to help address emotional, occupational and physical issues.

“We assess way beyond a biometric screening,” says Thompson. “We are trained to listen and cross-refer, which expedites empowerment for employees to take care of themselves by accessing the right kind of support.”

For example, if an employee mentions not feeling well physically to a therapist, that professional may inquire about stress or sleeping habits. Sometimes, she adds, physicians have contacted her team members, thanking them for getting to the root of a patient’s problem.

The program, which is completely confidential, is an effective employee retention tool. Thompson points to one faculty member who didn’t pursue another job because the other school lacked this kind of integrated program.

Benefits that strengthen mind/body connections can also involve groups. Take Vassar College in New York, which offers free chef demonstrations for employers twice a year.

Possible ideas for next year include meditation classes and inviting guest speakers to address “mindful eating,” says Sarah Bakke, assistant director for employee wellness at the college, which employs more than 1,200.

Wellness inspiration

In spring 2014, The University of Tennessee introduced its Work Healthy UT wellness website. A year later, the site began featuring guest bloggers—employees who describe their wellness experiences, such as quitting smoking, growing their own vegetables, or doing well with jogging or biking. The three categories are physical health, mental health and work-life balance.

The idea is that wellness doesn’t begin when the work day ends, and a supportive workplace helps employees live healthy, balanced lives, says Jon Gushen, HR director of benefits and retirement at the university, which supports 9,791 faculty and staff on four campuses.

“[Employees] began sharing recipes and telling stories of weight loss; and, of course, experts shared health information and research,” he says, adding that this sharing broadens the impact of the efforts individual employees are making.

Lifelong income stream

Park University in Missouri will offer a new retirement fund in January to its 525 employees, says Roger Dusing, associate vice president and chief human resources officer. Instead of investing in a target-date fund that offers a lump sum of money at retirement, employees will receive a lifelong income stream. The plan is available through a partnership between TIAA-CREF and Dimensional Fund Advisors.

“Dimensional Fund figured out how to achieve a cash flow stream that will pay you from your retirement balance for the rest of your life,” he says. The company uses a formula that considers age, income and savings, and then recommends an investment portfolio that will help ensure the person will have the resources to live post-retirement.

Concierge services

Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona partnered with Compass Concierge Services to help its 4,800 employees get answers to questions about healthcare services, such as which doctor or hospital would be most cost-effective based on the employee’s healthcare plan, says Lisa Kussard, a senior human resources manager at Maricopa. The consultant can also review hospital bills.

Compass “helps employees with basically getting through the maze of health insurance,” she says, adding that the benefit may also be used for vision and dental insurance. “It will give them a clear picture of what their options and costs are.”

The free benefit is being introduced in December, and Kussard says she’s hopeful, based on Compass usage data, that more than 30 percent of employees will take advantage of it.

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based writer, is UB’s HR columnist.