Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Free" Money?

While I appreciate the convenience of gift cards, giving them always feels a bit lazy. As a recipient, however, I very much appreciate the flexibility and the freedom to buy, within the limits of the card, pretty much anything—sometimes things for which I wouldn’t even have thought to ask much less buy for myself. And, arguably, in at least a couple of cases, things I SHOULDN’T have bought, and probably wouldn’t have bought, if it hadn’t felt like “free” money.

That very human inclination to spend our own money more judiciously than what we are given underpins the growing interest in consumer-directed health plans, such as the now decade-old health savings account (HSA), or its slightly older cousin, the health reimbursement arrangement, or HRA[i]. Both are designed to provide workers the ability to pay for health care-related expenses with funds drawn from the account – and yet, EBRI’s 2013 Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey (CEHCS)[ii] found evidence that adults with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to exhibit a number of cost-conscious behaviors related to use of health care services.

Specifically, the analysis found that those with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to:
  • report that they asked for a generic drug instead of a brand name (52 percent HSA vs. 49 percent HRA);
  • check the price of a service before getting care (41 percent HSA vs. 34 percent HRA);
  • ask a doctor to recommend less-costly prescriptions (40 percent HSA vs. 38 percent HRA);
  • develop a budget to manage health care expenses (32 percent HSA vs. 22 percent HRA); and
  • use an online, cost-tracking tool provided by the health plan (27 percent HSA vs. 21 percent HRA).
Moreover, the 2013 CEHCS also found that adults with an HSA were more likely than those with an HRA to be engaged in their choice of health plan, when they had a choice. They were, according to the analysis, more likely to report that they had talked to friends, family, and colleagues about the plans; used other websites to learn about health plan choices; and were more likely to have consulted with both their employer’s HR staff and an insurance broker to understand plan choices, among other things.

HRAs and HSAs are very similar, so why might those differences in behavior occur between those covered by the two plan types? Consider that an HRA is an employer-funded health plan that reimburses employees for qualified medical expenses, in contrast to the HSA, which can have both employer and employee contributions. HRAs are generally “notional” accounts maintained by the employer, and while funds unspent at the end of each year can be carried over for future use, that option is at the employer’s discretion.

On the other hand, and as the EBRI report notes, an HSA is owned by the individual and is completely portable, with no annual “use-it-or-lose-it” rule. Additionally, those who do not use all the money in their HSA during their working years can use it to pay out-of-pocket expenses after they retire.

Said another way, for most people the HSA balance probably feels like it is “their” money[iii], and they spend it accordingly, while their HRA feels more like a gift card with an expiration date. It’s certainly not “free” money, but it may feel that way to them.
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
[i] Overall, 26.1 million individuals with private insurance, representing 15 percent of the market, were either in an HRA or an HSA-eligible plan.  See “Who Has “Consumer-Driven” Health Plans?

[ii]Consumer Engagement Among HSA and HRA Enrollees: Findings from the 2013 EBRI/Greenwald & Associates Consumer Engagement in Health Care Survey,” is published in the June EBRI Notes here.

[iii] In many cases it is, of course, literally funded by their contributions.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Out" Takes

My first car wasn’t anything special, other than it was my first car. It was an older model Ford, ran reasonably well, with one small problem— it went through oil almost as quickly as it did gasoline. At first I attributed that to being a function of the car’s age, but as the leakage grew, I eventually dealt with it by keeping a couple of quarts of oil in the trunk “just in case.” Eventually, I took the car to a dealership—but by the time they finished estimating the cost of a head gasket repair, let’s just say that, even on my limited budget, I could buy a LOT of oil by the quart, over a long period of time, and still be ahead financially.

“Leakage”—the withdrawal of retirement savings via loan or distribution prior to retirement— is a matter of ongoing discussion among employers, regulators, and policy makers alike. In fact, EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei was recently asked to present findings on “The Impact of Leakages on 401(k) Accumulations at Retirement Age” to the ERISA Advisory Council in Washington.[1]

EBRI’s analysis considered the impact on young employees with more than 30 years of 401(k) eligibility by age 65 if cashouts at job turnover, hardship withdrawals (and the accompanying six-month suspension of contributions) and plan loan defaults were substantially reduced or eliminated. The analysis assumed automatic enrollment and (as explicitly noted) no behavioral response on the part of participants or plan sponsors if that access to plan balances was eliminated.

Looked at together, EBRI found that there was a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80 percent real income replacement rate (combining 401(k) accumulations and Social Security benefits) of 8.8 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 7.0 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. Said another way, 27.3 percent of those in the lowest-income quartile (and 15.2 percent of those in the highest-income quartile) who would have come up short of an 80 percent real replacement rate under current assumptions WOULD reach that level if no leakages are assumed.

The EBRI analysis also looked at the impact of the various types of “leakage” individually. Of loan defaults, hardships, and cashouts at job change, cashouts at job change were found to have a much more serious impact on 401(k) accumulation than either plan loan defaults or hardship withdrawals (even with the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions included). The leakages from cashouts resulted in a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80 percent real replacement rate of 5.9 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 4.5 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. That effect from cashouts—not loans or hardship withdrawals—turns out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.

However, and as the testimony makes clear, it’s one thing to quantify the impact of not allowing early access to these funds—and something else altogether to assume that participants and plan sponsors would not respond in any way to those changes, perhaps by reducing contributions,[2] potentially offsetting some or all of the prospective gains from restricting access to those funds.

Because ultimately, whether you’re dealing with an old car or your retirement savings account, what matters isn’t how much “leaks” out—it’s how much you put in, and how much you have to “run” on.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] EBRI’s testimony for the ERISA Advisory Council, U.S. Department of Labor Hearing on Lifetime Participation in plans is available online here.  

[2] An EBRI/ICI analysis published in the October 2001 EBRI Issue Brief found that, “[o]n average, a participant in a plan offering loans appeared to contribute 0.6 percentage point more of his or her salary to the plan than a participant in a plan with no loan provision.” Testimony provided to the ERISA Advisory Council testimony notes that it’s likely that a similar relationship exists with respect to the availability of hardship withdrawals. See “Contribution Behavior of 401(k) Plan Participants,” online here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Short" Changed

My wife is fond of recounting one of our early dates when we ran out of gas.  Now, we were in the heart of a Chicago suburb at the time, not the middle of nowhere, and while the hour was late, I continue to maintain that it was a simple case of my misreading the gas gauge in a relatively new car with which I hadn’t yet gained a full appreciation for just how far I could push such things.  My wife, of course, has always accused me of a more “nefarious” purpose.

It would be more difficult to explain such an outcome these days.  We’ve gone from vehicles that simply had a floating gauge and a range of red at the 1/8 tank line, to those that have a solid and then a blinking yellow light, to ones that beep and flash and tell you how many miles you have left before you run out.

As inconvenient as running out of gas late at night can be, it surely pales in comparison to the prospects of running short of money in retirement.  EBRI has, for more than a decade now, used highly sophisticated modeling techniques to gauge the retirement readiness of baby boomers and Gen Xers.  One of the primary outputs of EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model (RSPM)[i] is the production of Retirement Readiness Ratings (RRRs), which represent the percentage of simulated life-paths that do not run short of money in retirement.  The 2014 version of RSPM found that over half of baby boomer and Gen Xer households would not run short of money in retirement.  However, when the results were analyzed by preretirement wage quartile, we found that while 86.4 percent of the highest income quartile were projected to not run short, just 16.8 percent of the lowest income quartile would not.

While it is useful, certainly from a public policy perspective, to know not only how many but also what types of individuals are projected to run short of money in retirement, it begs the question: when will they run short?

A recent EBRI Notes article[ii] provides new results showing how many years into retirement baby boomer and Gen Xer households are simulated to run short of money, by preretirement income quartile and for a variety of assumptions, as well as taking into account the impact of the potentially catastrophic expenses of nursing home and home health care expenses.  Not surprisingly, it finds that those in the lowest income brackets are most likely to run short.

Moreover, while some in all income brackets—including the highest—may run short at some point during their retirement, the EBRI analysis also found that, when nursing home and home health care expenses are factored in, the number of households in the lowest income quartile that are projected to run short of money within 20 years of retirement is considerably larger than those in the other three income quartiles combined.

The EBRI analysis provides valuable insights for policymakers, providers and employers alike because, whether you’re concerned about running out of gas short of your destination – or short of money in retirement – it’s important that your gauges be accurate, and appropriate to the vehicle in which you’re riding there.
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
[i] A Brief Description of EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® is available here.

[ii] The June EBRI Notes article, ““Short” Falls: Who’s Most Likely to Come up Short in Retirement, and When?” is available online here.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Pre-Existing Conditions?

Much has been made of the so-called employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and its postponements. Of course, as a recent EBRI publication points out, the mandate (currently slated to be enforced effective in 2015) applies only to employers with 50 or more full-time workers – and most of these employers already offer health coverage to their workers. Last year, 91 percent of employers with 50–199 workers offered coverage, as did 99 percent of employers with 200 or more workers, according to the EBRI analysis.

However, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) defines a full-time employee as one who works 30 or more hours per week, on average – well below the 40-hour-week threshold typically associated with full-time employment. As a result, there is concern that employers may respond by cutting back on health coverage for part-time workers or by decreasing part-timer hours to keep them below the 30-hour-week threshold.

The EBRI report notes that, overall, there were 20 million workers employed under 30 hours per week and 18.8 million employed 30–39 hours per week in 2012. Among those employed between 30 and 39 hours per week, 6.3 million (33.6 percent) had employment-based coverage from their own job. In contrast, 60.5 percent of workers employed at least 40 hours per week had employment-based coverage from their own job.

Has the PPACA led to a reduction in hours? The EBRI analysis finds that between 2006 and 2010 (the year that PPACA was signed into law), the percentage of workers employed fewer than 30 hours per week increased from 11.9 percent to 14.1 percent, while the percentage of workers employed 30–39 hours per week also increased, from 11.4 percent to 13.2 percent over the period. Since passage of PPACA, there has actually been a slight drop in the use of part-time workers, though this may be attributable to the drop in the unemployment rate.

Indeed, the percentage of workers with coverage through their own job has been trending downward since 2007 regardless of hours worked per week. However, in relative terms, the EBRI report notes that part-time workers have experienced a much larger decline in coverage than full-time workers. Between 2007 and 2012, workers employed 40 or more hours per week experienced a 3 percent reduction in the likelihood of having coverage from their own job, while those employed 30–39 hours per week experienced a 12 percent decline (those employed fewer than 30 hours per week experienced a 20 percent decline).

Among workers employed 30–39 hours per week, both those who worked for a large employer and those who worked for a small employer experienced a 9 percent decline in coverage between 2008 and 2012.

The data confirm that the recent recession resulted in an increased use of part-time workers, but since 2010 the percentage of workers employed less than 40 hours per week has declined slightly. The data also indicate that while both full-time and part-time workers have experienced drops in health coverage, part-time workers have been affected disproportionately.

The question, of course, is whether PPACA’s full-time worker definition will accelerate – or ameliorate – those trends.
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
“Trends in Health Coverage for Part-Time Workers, 1999–2012” is published in the May EBRI Notes at

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The "Hassle" Factor

Much is made these days of the application of behavioral finance and the implications for plan design, as well as the role of choice architecture in helping workers make “better” (if not more informed) benefit decisions.  Valuable as these insights have been, I think much of human behavior (or lack thereof) in these matters can be more simply explained.

What’s at work is a concept a friend of mine described to me more than 20 years ago – something he called “the hassle factor.”  It was a philosophy he routinely applied in many aspects of his personal and professional life.  Simply stated, presented with a choice between doing something that is hard, time-consuming, complicated, or even inconvenient, and doing something else, my friend – and, in fairness, human beings generally seem to be – inclined to opt for the latter.

Of course, the “hassle factor” CAN be trumped by exterior needs or forces, as anyone who has endured the long lines at the DMV or sat through the background music on an interminably long customer service line can attest.  That said, things like an unduly complicated 401(k) enrollment form/process can certainly serve as a barrier to plan entry, and there’s every reason to expect that the same might apply when it comes time to exit the plan.

Job change is a point in time at which a lot of important decisions are made—some voluntary and some forced upon us—and the disposition of one’s retirement savings account certainly looms large among them.  A recent EBRI Notes article examined what workers age 50 and above did with their defined contribution account balances at the point of job change, looking at data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with individuals age 50 and over.  EBRI analyzed responses from 2008 and 2010 for this study.

In terms of demographic characteristics, no significant difference was found between men and women in terms of their DC account balances and what they chose to do with them at job change.  And while married or partnered individuals were less likely to withdraw their assets and more likely to roll them over into an IRA than singles, the differences were small.

The EBRI analysis did find that a decision to take a withdrawal in cash declined with higher account balances, higher incomes, existing ownership of an IRA, and higher financial wealth. Not surprisingly, the decision to cash out rose with individual debt levels.

However, among those who left their employer but remained in the workforce, the most common outcome was to leave their retirement account balance with their prior employer’s plan.  The EBRI report notes that, unlike the outcomes detailed above, there was no clear trend between the financial variables, and the decision to leave those DC balances in the prior employer plans.

As for what might explain that outcome, the report noted that it might simply be a decision to postpone taking the money until it was needed, or that there “may be behavioral factors, such as inertia, driving what might be seen as a ‘non-decision.’”

Or, as my friend might have been inclined to say, a non-decision based on the “hassle factor.”
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
“Take it or Leave it? The Disposition of DC Accounts: Who Rolls Over into an IRA? Who Leaves Money in the Plan and Who Withdraws Cash?” is published in the EBRI May Notes, available here.