Many companies are dropping their promise of health benefits for future retirees, who now might have to stay on the job longer and rely on government healthcare in their old age.
Eight percent of employers with at least 1,000 workers said they had eliminated subsidized retiree health benefits for some workers this year, and 11% more said they probably would do so next year, according to a study released Tuesday by the benefits consulting firm Hewitt Associates and the not-for-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Most of those affected were newly hired, but some companies said the change applied to workers who had been on the payroll longer.
The number of companies that offer health coverage to retirees has been on the decline for 15 years. But among those that continue to subsidize retiree coverage, the move to treat current and former workers differently reflects a desire to leave health benefits in place for those who have already retired despite several consecutive years of double-digit increases in health care costs.
Since 2000, more than 100 large employers have chosen this path. Some have cut out subsidies but have told employees they can continue coverage under company health plans after they retire, a much cheaper option than seeking health insurance elsewhere.
"Retiree healthcare coverage is kind of a slowly vanishing species," Kaiser President Drew Altman said.
The prospect of losing health coverage in retirement is troubling particularly to people who are considering changing jobs or who want to retire between the ages of 55 and 64. Younger retirees can find it difficult to afford health insurance when they can't get it from their employers.
Medicare, the government health program for older and disabled Americans, kicks in at age 65. Its benefits typically have been less generous than those offered by employers, mainly because the workplace plans cover prescription drugs. Medicare's drug insurance program begins in 2006.
The employer plans, however, are asking retirees to pay more of their health costs through higher insurance premiums and larger copayments for doctor visits and prescription medicines.
People who retire in 2004 face premiums about 25% higher than those who retired last year, according to the survey of 333 companies, which was conducted between May and September.
Most large employers said they will maintain prescription drug benefits for retirees after the Medicare drug program begins in 2006, the study said.
The fate of retirees with employer-sponsored drug benefits was a major consideration of the authors of last year's Medicare prescription drug law. To keep more employers from dropping coverage, the law includes up to $88 billion over 10 years in tax-free subsidies to companies that offer prescription benefits that are at least the equal of Medicare's.
In 1991, 80% of firms employing 1,000 or more workers offered health coverage to retirees. By 2003, the number had fallen to 57%, Hewitt said. When looking at companies with at least 200 employees, the number is 38%, Kaiser said.
Roughly 15 million retirees receive healthcare coverage from former employers. About 3 million are 55 to 64. The rest are eligible for Medicare, Altman said.
The new survey, conducted before issuance of final Medicare regulations about the drug benefit, found that just 8% of employers said they would drop retirees' drug benefits in the program's first year.
Frank McArdle, manager of Hewitt's research office in Washington, said the early response from employers is good news. But he cautioned that decisions about 2007 and beyond would depend on the regulations, the design of Medicare drug plans devised by private insurers and by costs.