Despite employees reporting a strong interest in their company vision program, today's workforce isn't taking full advantage of the coverage — especially baby boomers.

Baby boomers (age 45-64) are only slightly more likely than younger employees to enroll in their vision benefit (79% vs. 75%), according to Transitions Optical's Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey.

"1-out-of-4 employees that have an opportunity to enroll in the program do not," says Pat Huot, director of managed vision care and online retail for Transitions Optical.

"Of those that do enroll, 1-out-of-3 employees in the baby-boomer age range and 1-out-of-4 in the 65-plus range have not used their vision plan at all in the last year."

Huot believes the industry is trying to make it easier for employers to help employees become connected with the importance of the annual exam and all of the other touch points associated with it, "but if employees don't use the benefit, there's no opportunity there for them to realize that benefit."


The consequences

Studies by The Vision Council, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit optical trade group, show about $8 billion is lost by employers every year due to lost productivity that stems from employee vision issues.

"This is mainly because employees' eyes are either not in focus or they have debilitating eye conditions that aren't managed well, so they just aren't as productive as they could be," says Dr. John Lahr, the medical director at Cincinnati-based EyeMed Vision Care.

Dr. Lahr, who has been in the field for nearly four decades, talks about the need for correction, which becomes more prevalent as employees age. The crystal lens of the eye where cataracts form, he says, is very elastic and loses that elasticity as people age.

"Usually, those between 40 and 45 cannot focus optimally for close vision and require reading glasses, or if they already have glasses they might need a multi-focal application to be able to read," he says.

"This factor really hits the worker that's in their 40's, 50's and 60's and is looking at a computer screen daily," adds Dr. Lahr. "If you measure that distance in which they are viewing it's usually 22 to 24 inches, where the normal reading distance is 16 to 18 inches."

He adds that the focus of glasses or contacts for everyday use is not optimal for the computer screen.

"In turn, employees lose a lot of productivity because they get eye strain, headaches, and they're also leaning forward in unnatural positions."

"In 2006, the very first baby boomer turned 60," says Transitions Optical's Huot. "As a snapshot of where we are as a country in terms of an aging workforce, it amazes me that every 10 seconds from that point in 2006 until 2023 someone in the U.S. will turn 60."

At age 40 employees should start protecting their eyes against serious diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration - neither of which has symptoms in the early stages, says Dr. Lahr.

He adds that these diseases are much more prevalent in blacks and Hispanics.

"We find there are profiles where we can draw to try to assess risks and try to be more cautious with those individuals."


The obstacles

According to the Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey, not having vision or eye health problems is the most commonly cited reason for not enrolling in a vision plan. This shows a lack of understanding of the importance of preventative eye care, says Transitions Optical's Huot.

He and his team encourage brokers to motivate their clients by giving them an interactive set of tools.

For example, his company's Healthy Sight Calculator helps clients educate their employees, calculate costs and learn about potential ROI with their vision plan.

"High profile tools, such as an online calculator, are designed to help the employees become more engaged around how a vision benefit connects to total health care versus" mentioning it as an afterthought in a larger presentation about health benefits, he says.

"We have yet to meet that broker that says, 'My clients can't wait to talk about vision!,'" adds Huot with a laugh.

EyeMed Vision Care tries to create an awareness of routine eye care and the associated benefits by providing an identification card that plan participants can put in their wallet to serve as a reminder during the year, says Dr. Lahr.


A personal experience

A decade ago Patrick Tibbs of Everence Financial Advisors in Indiana began to experience pressure in his eyes. He went in for a routine eye exam where the ophthalmologist determined his symptoms could be a cause of glaucoma.

Tibbs now goes once a year to have his eyes checked and glasses dispensed. He says by taking preventative steps for his own vision he feels a personal satisfaction knowing that employees are doing the same.

Vision care benefits are "near and dear to my heart," he says.

Vision benefits play a key part in motivating employees to see an eye doctor for a comprehensive exam.

EyeMed Vision Care's Dr. Lahr has seen in studies that those who have vision care coverage are more likely to get preventive eye exams even if they don't have symptoms.

"Our average utilization of a voluntary benefit where an employee defers money out of their paycheck we see about 35%," he says.

One factor keeping that utilization rate from rising is a misguided assumption that "if I see well [then] there's nothing wrong with my eyes."

Tibbs says baby boomers who are paying higher premiums for health insurance at the same time they're seeing their 401(k) values drop, yet still having to cover dependents with out-of-pocket costs, could be avoiding routine eye care "because they can't afford to pay $75 to $100 for an eye exam, then pay $300 for a pair of glasses."


Marketing the product

The first step in selling vision plans, says Tim Falanga, executive vice president at Managing Agency Group, a division of AmWINS Group Benefits, is to simply ask, "Do you have a vision program?"

The vision care benefit is a great way to discuss a low cost, high-value benefit that the vast majority of employees don't mind using - and prefer, he says.

"The biggest advantage for a broker is the value that vision care provides," he adds.

"Generally an employer will have a medical plan where costs escalate year after year. Vision is a low-cost benefit in comparison to a medical plan."

The Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey also dug into employers' vision benefit education methods and found that more than half (58%) of employers offer clearly written materials about the costs and benefits of their vision plan, and more than one-third (34%) include a presentation on what the plan covers.

Other employee education methods, though, were largely underutilized, according to the responses. These included:

* One-on-one employee benefits discussions; and

* Bringing in a broker or educating on vision benefits during a time other than open enrollment.

Huot notices an interesting disconnect between what employees will say in terms of how they value a vision plan versus what they'll do in order to take advantage of one.

"They say everything you would typically expect but the disconnect piece for us is utilization itself," he says.

"It emphasizes the need for education from an insurance prospective or from a client perspective to get employees a little more engaged with where they are with an eye health perspective."

A majority of respondents to the survey chose the option "discounts not enough to justify costs" as one of the top reasons for not enrolling in a vision benefit. This response increased with age: 21% for resondents age 18-24, 39% for those age 45-64 and 47% age 65 and older.

"As consumers, we're used to comparing and price shopping everything that we buy and I think when you look at some vision benefits and the way they're written that doesn't really mean anything to a consumer," says Huot.

"The role of branding and consumerism and describing the materials and their benefits, I think that influences the way people evaluate a good deal."


Vision care is the summer

In the summer months employees' calendars are filled with vacations, parties and other outdoor festivities. Protecting eyes from ultraviolet rays is a must - but that is not the only one to be careful of, says Dr. John Lahr, medical director at Cincinnati-based EyeMed Vision Care.

In ophthalmology there is a new acronym to account for as a contributor to the development of cataracts and macular degeneration: high-energy visible light.

"This is the blue spectrum which we would see longer wavelength that is closer to the UV spectrum," says Dr. Lahr. "It has been studied through longitudinal studies which measured people's development of the two key eye diseases," cataracts and macular degeneration. "Since both of these eye diseases are much more prevalent in individuals that have high exposures to UV light, now they're starting to break down where they are when they're exposed," he adds.

As employees age, they have a heightened risk for cataracts that can impair performance at work," says Indiana broker Patrick Tibbs. "Out of 20 million people with cataracts it's estimated that 20% of those are caused by ultraviolet rays. Having proper eye wear is important and it will help with productivity." -Marli D. Riggs


Wellpoint to buy 1-800 contacts for $900 million

(Reuters) - Health insurer WellPoint Inc. plans to buy contact-lens and eyewear retailer 1-800 Contacts Inc for a transaction value close to $900 million, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing a person familiar with the matter.

The deal will close in the third-quarter and will start adding to the company's per-share earnings in 2014, The Journal says in its report. The deal will be financed with cash on hand, the report says.

"We see a unique way of tying 1-800 Contacts into our product design," WellPoint Chief Financial Officer Wayne DeVeydt is quoted as saying in the report.

WellPoint would also get "a diversified revenue stream into a higher-margin business," the report says, quoting the CFO.

1-800 Contacts has after-tax margins in the "double-digit range," compared with around 4% to 5% across WellPoint's health insurance business lines, the report quotes DeVeydt as saying.

WellPoint and 1-800 Contacts Inc could not reached for comment by Reuters.

Written by Bijoy Koyitty, Editing by Jon Loades-Carter

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