"For many companies, a top concern is providing a comprehensive wellness program that will attract employees, enable them to be healthier, and thus help to contain the organization’s health insurance costs."
Ben Howarth is a financial adviser with the Barnum Financial Group, a MetLife firm. He is based in Warwick and specializes in financial and retirement planning. He conducts numerous on-site employee workshops through MetLife’s PlanSmart program, one of the largest worksite financial education programs in the nation.
He is on the board of the Foundation for Life, which supports hundreds of charitable organizations in the northeast and sponsors its own Bikes for Kids program. Howarth is also on the board of Best Buddies of Rhode Island, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He has certifications as an advisor for senior living and as a special needs planner.
Howarth has a bachelor’s in finance from Bryant University.
PBN: In your work on financial planning, employee benefits and health care with many companies in Rhode Island, what have you found to be the issues of most concern or interest?
HOWARTH: For many companies, a top concern is providing a comprehensive wellness program that will attract employees, enable them to be healthier, and thus help to contain the organization’s health insurance costs. Increasingly, companies are realizing that financial wellness should be part of the wellness package. Financial education in the workplace, such as MetLife’s PlanSmart financial education workshops, puts people in a better position to make important decisions. Confidence in one’s judgment on financial matters can reduce stress and boost productivity on the job.
PBN: The Affordable Care Act has obviously required companies to re-adjust benefits policies. How do you think that’s working out, particularly for Rhode Island-based companies?
HOWARTH: A lot of companies are still evaluating what their benefits strategy should be in this new environment. The slow-paced Rhode Island economy can make the decisions tougher. The challenge for business owners almost everywhere is to utilize the resources they have available to give their employees the benefits they most want, at a cost the employer can afford. I think we are going to see a mix of answers, depending, in part, on the size of the firm and its financial condition.
PBN: What are the three most frequent questions you get from corporate leaders about changes in the health care structure?
HOWARTH: To put it in perspective, 60 percent of companies surveyed in MetLife’s 12th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study cited “increased health care costs” as a “very challenging” issue. This was followed by “understanding the impact of ACA for our company,” which 49 percent cited as a “very challenging” issue. Not far behind, at 40 percent, was “educating employees about the impact of health care reform.” Employers want to draw employees into a dialogue about health care and help them understand what they can do both to help themselves and to help keep the company competitive in its marketplace. To that end, questions I get often center on establishing or improving a wellness program, financial education and identifying what kinds of benefit packages employees would find attractive.
PBN: What kind of trends are you seeing in corporate benefits overall, particularly with the sluggish economy in Rhode Island? Are businesses in the Ocean State handling benefits in ways that are similar to companies in Connecticut or Massachusetts?
HOWARTH: Employers are still quite committed to benefits, for the most part. They realize that employees who are very satisfied with their benefits are more than twice as likely to report being very satisfied with their jobs, according to our MetLife study on trends in employee benefits. Offering employees benefit choices is becoming more prevalent. For example, companies can provide a menu of voluntary benefits, where the employee pays all or part of the cost. The employee has the benefit of lower group rates and payroll deduction, as well as coverage for events like a critical illness or an accident. They also can initiate or extend protection with life and disability insurance, among other products.
PBN: What kind of trends are you seeing in retirement, 401(k) and other long-term financial planning? What suggestions would you have for corporate executives, as far as these types of benefits, for attracting and retaining quality employees?
HOWARTH: There is strong emphasis now on helping employees make the optimal choices, whether that is selecting benefits to supplement health insurance, provide more protection for a family, or understand the enrollment process better. About one-third of employees don’t take an active role during the enrollment period, letting the system default to the prior year’s choices, or not going through enrollment at all. To engage employees, organizations are enhancing and streamlining employee communications and, in many cases, encouraging feedback on the enrollment process and on the benefits. Financial education in the workplace is becoming pivotal to help employees determine how their group benefits align with what they are doing individually. With that perspective, the employee can have a comprehensive game plan to achieve his or her goals. Ultimately, a good benefits strategy is all about fostering the dialogue between employer and employee.