EBRI Issue Brief

Defined Contribution Health Benefits

Mar 1, 2001 32  pages


  • This Issue Brief discusses the emerging issue of “defined contribution” (DC) health benefits. The term “defined contribution” is used to describe a wide variety of approaches to the provision of health benefits, all of which have in common a shift in the responsibility for payment and selection of health care services from employers to employees. DC health benefits often are mentioned in the context of enabling employers to control their outlay for health benefits by avoiding increases in health care costs. DC health benefits may also shift responsibility for choosing a health plan and the associated risks of choosing a plan from employers to employees.
  • There are three primary reasons why some employers currently are considering some sort of DC approach. First, they are once again looking for ways to keep their health care cost increases in line with overall inflation. Second, some employers are concerned that the public “backlash” against managed care will result in new legislation, regulations, and litigation that will further increase their health care costs if they do not distance themselves from health care decisions. Third, employers have modified not only most employee benefit plans but labor market practices in general, by giving workers more choice, control, and flexibility.
  • DC-type health benefits have existed as cafeteria plans since the 1980s. A cafeteria plan gives each employee the opportunity to determine the allocation of his or her total compensation (within employer-defined limits) among various employee benefits (primarily retirement or health). Most types of DC health benefits currently being discussed could be provided within the existing employment-based health insurance system, with or without the use of cafeteria plans. They could also allow employees to purchase health insurance directly from insurers, or they could drive new technologies and new forms of risk pooling through which health care services are provided and financed.
  • DC health benefits differ from DC retirement plans. Under a DC health plan, employees may face different premiums based on their personal health risk and perhaps other factors such as age and geographic location. Their ability to afford health insurance may depend on how premiums are regulated by the state and how much money their employer provides. In contrast, under a DC retirement plan, employers' contributions are based on the same percentage of income for all employees, but employees are not subject to paying different prices for the same investment.