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

"One-out-of-four 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, one-out-of-three employees in the baby-boomer age range and one-out-of-four in the 65-plus range have not used their vision plan at all in the last year."

Huot believes employers and the vision industry are trying to make it easier for employees to understand the importance of an annual eye exam and everything that goes with it. However, "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 because of diminished 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 multifocal application to be able to read," he says.

"This factor really hits the worker who's in their 40s, 50s and 60s 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," Dr. Lahr explains.

In 2006, the first of the baby boomers turned 60.

"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," says Huot.

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.


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 Huot.

He and his team provide an interactive set of tools for employers to motivate their employees to seek the vision tests and care they need.

For example, his company's Healthy Sight Calculator helps plan sponsors educate employees, calculate costs and learn about potential return on investemnt for 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.

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 opthalmologist determined his symptoms could be a sign of glaucoma.

Tibbs now goes once a year to have his eyes checked. 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.

These benefits also 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 preventative 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, [is] 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, seeing their 401(k) values drop, and may still be covering out-of-pocket expenses for dependents - 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."


Promoting the vision benefit

The Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey also delved 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 underused, 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 ... to get employees a little more engaged with where they are from an eye health perspective," adds Huot.

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% of respondents aged 18-24 said discounts aren't enough to justify the costs, 39% of those aged 45-64 said the same, and 47% of those aged 65 and older felt the discounts aren't enough to justify the costs.

"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," he says.

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