An aging workforce, coupled with demands for the latest eyewear fashions, is putting pressure on employer-sponsored vision benefits. As employees age, the likelihood of needing glasses increases. And with eyewear being increasingly viewed as a fashion accessory, employers are seeing increased demand for up-to-date vision benefits.

Vince Colonna, director of compensation and benefits at Broward Health, estimates his benefits team fields at least one call every day from employees looking for information about the hospital system’s vision plan.

“We’re here in South Florida, near Miami, near South Beach, which is one of the fashion capitals of the world. The employees are sensitive to their eyewear,” he says. “Eyewear used to be clinical but eyewear is now a fashion. People are wearing their glasses just like their purses.”

Taking care of vision and eye health is essential for employees to do their jobs at Broward Health, an 8,000-employee health care system. And as health care reform unfolded in 2013 and employees started expressing concern about how their vision benefits would be affected, Colonna saw an opportunity to revamp the organization’s vision plan.

With a mature workforce — Colonna estimates the average age of employees is around 40 and the average tenure of workers in its large population of nurses is seven or eight years — a solid vision plan is a necessary benefit. Technological advances in health care, including the use of electronic health records, means employees at Broward Health need to be able to see properly to do their jobs.

“If you’re in a clinical area in particular, there’s really no paper anymore,” explains Colonna. “Everything is computerized and [looked at on] a handheld monitor or a monitor on the wall and everything is either green screens or blue screens or red screens or yellow screens. You need good eyewear to get through the day because otherwise, you really can’t do your job.”

Prior to 2014, Broward’s vision benefit had been embedded in its health plan and was, Colonna says, “a little bit out of date.” While the clinical side of the benefit — eye doctor visits and exams, for example — was more than adequate, Colonna felt the available eyewear options needed updating.

Also see: Employees set sight on vision insurance

Looking for ways to modernize the benefits, last year Colonna launched a new, unbundled plan with EyeMed and conducted extensive outreach to employees at all four of Broward’s hospital locations. As a result of his efforts, which included one-on-one meetings with employees, more than 90% of the hospital system’s benefits-eligible employees enrolled in the new vision plan.

Broward’s high participation rate in the plan is due, in part, to the organization’s commitment to helping employees pay for care. Broward Health heavily subsidizes premiums to make the coverage affordable.

“What the average employee is paying biweekly in their paycheck is less than what they would pay on the open market if they just had to go get a vision exam,” says Colonna. “It’s a wonderful benefit for the employees.”

Consumer demand

Broward’s experience speaks to a wider trend of consumer demands for customization in benefits. The most prevalent trend in vision benefits right now is the notion of providing consumers with choice — and lots of it, says Kate Renwick-Espinosa, incoming president of VSP Vision Care.

“The fact that employers are having multiple generations in their workforce [means] more customization of what is offered to employees from a benefit standpoint,” she says. “And that customization is both on the service side — how employees access their benefits or information about their benefits — and the benefit side — the fact that [vision needs] vary depending on how much time you spend outdoors, or how much time you spend in front of the computer screen, and also what your health conditions are.”

Also see: Dental, vision benefits vital to broader employee health promotion

Behind medical and dental, vision benefits rank third among employees’ most common benefits elections, according to the 2015 Transitions Optical Employee Perceptions of Vision Benefits survey.

Health issues

Indeed, 78% of those surveyed are enrolled in their company’s vision plan. And yet, despite relatively high enrollment when the benefit is offered, many employees are unaware of the health issues beyond poor vision that an eye exam can help detect.

“Many systemic diseases are visible by looking into the eye, even before symptoms are evident,” says Jonathan Ormsby, a strategic account manager for Transitions Optical. The primary examples are hypertension and prediabetes. An eye exam “serves as an introduction to the medical system for people who consider it less intimidating” than even a routine physical assessment,” he adds.

Sharon Rao, corporate benefits manager at AirBorn Inc., a Texas-based company that manufactures components for everything from military devices to medical devices such as defibrillators and artificial limbs, also sees great value in vision benefits for her company’s 1,000 employees, some of whom build components under microscopes all day long. She says educating workers on the importance of regular eye exams and diseases they can detect is one of her biggest challenges.

“With our aged population and with the demographics we have, diabetes and high cholesterol are huge,” she says. “I try and tell them: ‘If you have your eye exams, you can catch that early on.’”

Also see: Vision, hearing care missing from wellness equation

And while the company offers an embedded vision benefit within its medical plan, the benefit covers eye exams every 18 months, which is not enough for some workers. In addition, not every employee opts for medical coverage so AirBorn also offers a voluntary plan through VSP. Rao estimates that about half of the company’s employees take advantage of the voluntary plan.

Communication challenges

Communicating the value of vision benefits is often cited as a big challenge for employers, who spend much of their time these days focused on keeping their medical plan costs in check and ensuring their compliance with the Affordable Care Act. And yet a well-communicated plan is vital for high participation, says Joel Davidowski, executive vice president with HUB International in Los Angeles.

Vision benefits may actually be easier to keep top-of-mind for employees than other health care benefits, according to Renwick-Espinosa.

“There are seasonal opportunities to educate employees about [vision] benefits and employers should take advantage of those seasonal opportunities,” she says. “For example, during the summer, educating about the importance of sunwear. [For] back to school, the importance of getting your child in for an eye exam.”

Also see: Employees blind to value of vision benefits

And while it may be tempting for some employers to ditch their vision plans in an effort to reduce costs, both Colonna and Rao encourage other plan sponsors to at least offer vision benefits on a voluntary basis.

“It’s just easy to ditch the benefit and not realize that we’re in a world of technology and a workplace of technology,” says Colonna. “In order to be productive with technology you have got to have good eyesight and you’ve got to have proper eyesight. The two go together.”

Adds Rao: “Perception’s everything. As I see it, the more benefits you’re offering the employee, the better.”

Richard Stolz, a freelance writer based in Rockville, Maryland, contributed to this story.

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