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Vision benefits provide tool for attracting, retaining staff

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Vision care benefits have become more available because of high employee interest, the strong economic climate, and the relatively low cost of offering a plan.

Looking for ways to attract and retain valued workers in competitive labor markets, many companies have been adding vision care benefits as one part of their overall strategy to become an "employer of choice," a new survey finds.

Fifty-six percent of 442 employers responding to a survey by William M. Mercer Inc. said they offer vision benefits to their workers. Among the respondents that provide vision benefits, virtually all (95 percent) cover dependents in addition to employees, and more than one-fourth (27 percent) also offer coverage to retirees.

Organizations that added the coverage within the past three years were asked why they did so.

Three reasons were cited significantly more often than the others: employee interest (cited by 66 percent), the low cost of providing the benefit (48 percent), and a belief that offering this coverage would help them attract and retain employees (37 percent).

"These reasons go hand in hand, and illustrate the importance employers place on being able to attract employees who will help them run a successful business," said Cathye Smithwick, a consultant in Mercer's San Jose office. "A majority of the employers providing vision care plans began doing so in the 1990s, a time when competition for qualified workers has been fierce."

Other reasons for adding vision care benefits: 15 percent said vision coverage was included in their medical plans, 14 percent said competitors were offering the benefit, and 5 percent said senior management had requested it. Among employers that don't offer and are unlikely to offer vision benefits, 55 percent cited cost as the primary reason.

Other findings showed that:

?Seventy percent of responding employers pay at least half of the premium cost for employee coverage, and more than a third (35 percent) pay the entire cost.

?Most plans cover one eye exam per year, paying either a percentage of the cost (typically 100 percent) or a fixed amount (typically $40 or $50).

?Most plans pay for new eyeglass frames every 24 months and for new lenses every year (54 percent) or two years (43 percent). Eight in 10 pay at least 80 percent of the cost of single-vision lenses when a network provider is used, and bifocal and trifocal lenses are covered similarly.

?Eight in 10 plans cover contact lenses in lieu of eyeglasses, while the remainder allow an employee to be reimbursed for both within a single coverage period. Medically necessary contact lenses typically are reimbursed at a higher rate than are elective contact lenses.

Among the 442 executives responding to the survey, 40 percent represent manufacturing firms, 57 percent represent service organizations, and 3 percent are with government entities. More than two-thirds of the organizations employ 1,000 or more workers and 16 percent employ 10,000 or more.

Mercer's 1998 Fax Facts Survey on Vision Benefits includes detailed information on employer-sponsored vision care plans. The report is available free of charge by calling 888-MERCER9.

William M. Mercer Inc., a leading consulting organization, assists employers in the areas of human resource strategy and implementation. The firm is the U.S. operating company of William M. Mercer Companies LLC, a worldwide consulting organization serving clients from 106 offices in 27 countries.

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