How to destroy buy-in (Editorial)

Those darn health-care costs. Governments have been fighting to control them for nearly two decades, and yet health care remains a hot topic for voters come election time. At their workplaces these same voters are faced with employers pressured to halt the steady rise in corporate benefits costs. For HR departments, benefit cost control has become an ongoing chore.

This issue’s front-page story on benefits reports employees are willing to ante up to protect their corporate health plans. Pharmaceutical firm Aventis Pharma polled 1,500 Canadian workers and found 50 per cent are willing to pay higher premiums. That’s good news for employers struggling with costs and hard decisions about coverage levels. It gives HR room to manoeuvre when reviewing and renegotiating benefit plans. But employers must be careful not to squander this opportunity. Employee willingness to pay more doesn’t mean HR has a free hand to increase premiums.

Benefit plan stewards need look no further than Ontario’s May budget to see how the apparent willingness to pay more for health care can be squandered.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government caused quite the stir with a new health-care premium that foists another $300 to $900 in annual taxes on Ontarians. Despite last fall’s election promise to improve health care without raising taxes, the sorry state of provincial finances caused the Liberals to backtrack and make hard decisions on budget day.

While fingers are easily pointed at the previous Progressive Conservative government for proclaiming it had balanced the books when the opposite was true, that reality does little to placate an electorate that voted for a clearly articulated no-new-taxes platform. McGuinty went so far as to sign a declaration in front of the press pledging no new taxes. (Oh, how these publicity stunts come back to haunt — remember Sheila Copps’ kill the GST or resign pledge?)

McGuinty’s health-care premium may indeed be necessary medicine. In fact, during the election campaign he often referred to surveys showing Ontarians preferred spending on health and education over the Progressive Conservative’s promise of tax cuts. With an electorate willing to forgo tax cuts for health care, McGuinty’s premium should have been easier for people to swallow. But the issue of much-needed health spending has been clouded with disappointment over a broken promise. It’s not about health care anymore, it’s about the integrity of election platforms.

And not only did McGuinty tell Ontarians they’ll pay more, he dropped chiropractic services, physiotherapy and eye exams from the list of government-paid services to boot.

What does this mean for corporate health plans? The big lesson for employers is communication.

Premium increases need employee goodwill, and that means an open, honest process that explains costs predicaments and outlines various options. Empowering employees to join in decision-making is more likely to garner support and acceptance than sticking people with unexpected costs brought down by someone who knows best.

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