Looks like insurance isn't the only thing being exchanged here

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

I have a friend who might be best described as a curmudgeon-in-training. He seems to live in a world where almost everything was better than it is now.

He'll routinely forward emails that put a bright, shiny spin on days gone by. I'm guessing you've seen them, or something similar. Invariably, they harken to a time when core values were instilled in children, parents were respected, and a good cup of coffee cost only a dime.

Never mind that they always seem to conveniently overlook some of the less pleasant aspects of this allegedly idyllic time. There's nary a mention of school children scurrying under desks during a nuclear bomb drill. Or battle-scarred war veterans drinking themselves into a coma. Or families puffing down cartons of cigarettes each week.

I guess they are harmless enough. But they help remind me that it can be a bit naive to treat “the old days” in ways that reveal a pleasant but warped perspective.

That noted, we're seeing two shifts in employer-employee relations that should make workers long for a trip on the Wayback Machine.

The first is a nearly universal implementation of one of the great corporate perks of all time, the introduction of 401ks. This bomb is still ticking, but, boy, look out when it detonates.

Yes, gentle reader, there was a time when many companies offered workers defined benefit plans, better known as pensions. The beauty of pensions (from an employee's perspective) is that recipients were guaranteed a regular if reduced income upon retirement. The amount received was typically predetermined by a formula that incorporated the worker's earnings history, length of service and age.

But, alas, many employers saw these as difficult, expensive and unpredictable to manage. Small surprise so many of them jumped on the 401k bandwagon as soon as it became available. And who could blame them? Suddenly, such costs were manageable, as it would now be on employees to invest the money and essentially fend for themselves during retirement.

Invest wisely, and you could end up with quite a nest egg. The stock market goes south or other bad things happen? Oh well, that's life.

There was also a time when many employers routinely covered all or most of their workers' health insurance costs. In recent years, more firms have shifted part of that burden to workers. But that's just the first dirt out of the dump truck compared to what's coming.

Thanks to a largely overlooked health insurance provision in our new healthcare law called the insurance exchange, many employers will soon be treating workers' healthcare like they treat retirement benefits: Here's your voucher, happy hunting.

Consider what's happening at Walgreens, which last week announced it would join the ranks of employers opting to implement the insurance exchange scheme, er, system. The firm's 16,000 employees will be given a specified amount that can help offset the cost more than two dozen insurance plan options.

Times being what they are, Walgreens is loathe to admit it is essentially placing the insurance monkey on workers' shoulders, while capping its costs.

The official spin is that employees will gain greater control over their healthcare. At least that's what one company official was quoted as saying last week. Uh-huh.

Not that Walgreens is alone. In fact, a growing list of employers will likely be taking a similar path. My guess is that it's just a matter of time until most of us who get insurance through our employers will become similarly empowered.

Ah progress. It's almost enough to make you nostalgic.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.