By JANET ADAMY
3M Co. confirmed it would eventually stop offering its health-insurance plan to retirees, citing the federal health overhaul as a factor.
The changes won’t start to phase in until 2013. But they show how companies are beginning to respond to the new law, which should make it easier for people in their 50s and early-60s to find affordable policies on their own. While thousands of employers are tapping new funds from the law to keep retiree plans, 3M illustrates that others may not opt to retain such plans over the next few years
The St. Paul, Minn., manufacturing conglomerate notified employees on Friday that it would change retiree benefits both for those who are too young to qualify for Medicare and for those who qualify for the Medicare program. Both groups will get an unspecified health reimbursement instead of having access to a company-sponsored health plan.
The maker of Post-it notes and Scotch tape said it made the announcement now to give retirees a chance to explore different options during this year’s benefit-enrollment period, according to a 3M memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. A 3M spokeswoman, Jacqueline Berry, confirmed the contents of the memo.
“As you know, the recently enacted health care reform law has fundamentally changed the health care insurance market,” the memo said. “Health care options in the marketplace have improved, and readily available individual insurance plans in the Medicare marketplace provide benefits more tailored to retirees’ personal needs often at lower costs than what they pay for retiree medical coverage through 3M.
“In addition, health care reform has made it more difficult for employers like 3M to provide a plan that will remain competitive,” the memo said. The White House says retiree-only plans are largely exempt from new health insurance regulations under the law.
The company didn’t specify how many workers would be impacted. It currently has 23,000 U.S. retirees.
Americans become eligible for the Medicare insurance program at age 65. Starting in 2015, 3M retirees too young to qualify for Medicare will receive financial support through what the company called a “health reimbursement arrangement” and won’t be able to enroll in the company’s group insurance plan. The company described that as an account retirees can use to purchase individual insurance through exchanges that the health law will create in 2014. 3M didn’t provide details on the financial contributions.
Currently, these workers get credits they can use to buy the company’s health plan offering medical, dental and prescription drug coverage, or they can elect to enroll in a health savings account. Such accounts typically provide employees with a contribution to help cover their health costs, and incentivize them to keep medical expenses low.
For those old enough to qualify for Medicare, 3M in 2013 will replace its current retiree medical program with a health reimbursement account, funded partly by the sponsor, that can be used to buy an individual Medicare plan. The federal government provides Medicare but enrollees pay a premium and can opt for privately run plans. Currently, these workers have had access to a reimbursement account that could be used to buy into the company’s group health plan.
Democrats that crafted the legislation say they tried to incentivize companies to keep their retiree coverage intact, especially until 2014. The law creates a $5 billion fund for employers and unions to offset the cost of retiree health benefits. More than 2,000 entities, including many large public companies, have already been approved to submit claims for such reimbursement. 3M did not apply.
“We would certainly welcome their application,” said Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for the White House. Ms. Berry, the 3M spokeswoman, said the company was monitoring the program and its requirements.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that “for all the employees who were promised they’d be able to keep their current benefits after the health-care law passed, I’m worried that the recent changes we’ve heard about…are just the beginning.”