Benefit survey results: ISU employees are healthy, benefit-savvy

The majority of Iowa State employees are healthy nonsmokers who are willing to take some financial risk and have a solid understanding of the value university benefits add to their total compensation.  That's the overall finding from the 2011 benefits survey conducted last March by the University Benefits Committee (UBC), human resource services (HRS) and the Research Institute for Studies in Education (RISE).

The purpose was to benchmark faculty, professional and scientific, and supervisory and confidential employees' satisfaction with the university's benefits, and to determine how knowledgeable they are about benefits generally, and ISU's plans specifically. (Merit employees' medical and dental benefits are managed through the State of Iowa collective bargaining plan, so those employees were not part of the survey.) The survey also asked employees about scenarios that could help control the cost of benefits.

Following is a look at some highlights from the survey results.

Good participation

Of the 4,225 eligible employees, 1,775 answered the survey for a response rate of 42 percent. Among that group, 71 percent were P&S employees.  More women (56 percent) responded than men (44 percent), and most employees who took the survey were between the ages of 45 and 64. More employees enrolled in the HMO medical plan (57 percent) responded than those in the PPO plan (37 percent).

Healthy, for the most part

The survey showed that 95 percent of ISU employees consider themselves to be in good or excellent health, and only 3 percent are tobacco-users. However, 46 percent of the respondents admitted that their current weight is higher than it should be.  Mark Power, chair of the UBC, found those numbers interesting.

"The percentage of self-reporting smokers was much lower than we anticipated," Power said. "And while we self-report a high level of health, about 50 percent [of employees] consider themselves overweight."

Power said one obvious solution would be to offer employees a comprehensive wellness program. But start-up costs and the return on investment for wellness programming is an issue. New programs often take three or more years to show positive savings.

"A wellness program could cost about $500,000 annually, and that's the low end," Power said. "We have a responsibility to look at wellness and start a program if feasible because it will help us control costs over the long run. The problem is start-up costs."

Prevention is key

Iowa State employees understand the importance of preventative care, according to the survey. During the most recent plan year (2010-11), 73 percent of employees had a physical exam, 90 percent had a dental preventative exam and cleaning, 70 percent had an eye exam and 56 percent received at least one immunization.

"We have a population very attuned to preventative services," Power said. "That was positive."

Most important benefits

Employees were asked to rank the university's most important benefits. Following are the results, from most to least important:

  1. Medical
  2. Retirement
  3. Dental
  4. Pharmacy
  5. Life insurance
  6. Long-term disability

In addition, employees were asked to rank nine benefit options that might either require employees to pay more for the coverage or reduce the benefit. The rank from most acceptable benefit change to least acceptable benefit change is:

  1. Reduce university-provided life insurance benefits to 1x salary
  2. Reduce university-provided long-term disability insurance to 50 percent
  3. Increase office visit co-pay
  4. Increase employee contribution for dental coverage
  5. Increase prescription co-pay
  6. Increase the maximum out-of-pocket deductible for medical coverage
  7. Increase employee contribution for medical coverage
  8. Forego salary increase and use available funding to cover benefit costs
  9. Reduce ISU contribution to retirement from 10 to 8 percent (employee contribution of 5 percent remains the same)

The survey indicates employees understand the value of the university's benefits, and that future changes should impact those benefits that are inexpensive and used the least. The issue, according to Power, is that the changes employees are most willing to accept would generate the least overall cost savings for the university.

In the know

Though more statistical analysis is forthcoming, the survey showed male respondents seem to be more knowledgeable about general benefit terms than female respondents. The survey also indicated that as employees age and their length of service increases, their benefits knowledge also increases. Employees have a solid understanding of common financial services, including mutual funds, IRAs, savings accounts and traditional benefits (medical, dental, prescription). Faculty are the most knowledgeable about general benefit terms.

Regarding ISU-specific benefits, however, women were more knowledgeable than men, especially with regard to medical and dental benefits, flexible spending accounts, the employee assistance program and sick leave. Employees in non-college units are more knowledgeable about vacation pay and sick leave than those in the colleges.

What's next?

With the benefits survey data in hand, ISU now has a foundation on which to make future benefits decisions.

"Going forward, it's very important to do a more detailed statistical analysis of the survey to make our benefits stronger," Power said. "If we do have to make changes to our benefits program, we'll have the information we need."