Empire Health Services to Freeze DB Plan

February 1, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Washington state-based Empire Health Services announced that it will freeze its defined benefit plan on April 1 and shift to its 403(b) program.

According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the health services firm mailed an outline of the changes to about 2,500 employees of Deaconess Medical Center and those at Valley Hospital and Medical Center last week.

Empire’s 403(b) plan promises a dollar-for-dollar match up to 4%. Empire spokeswoman Christine Varela said Empire’s match was a response to a competitive job market and good business sense. “It’s what we needed to do and we think the changes will be positive,” she told the newspaper.

The Empire pension plan – considered to be well-funded – has 3,300 participants and assets totaling about $57 million, according to its 2004 filings with the Internal Revenue Service that the newspaper obtained.

According to the newspaper, the executives at the company met with 100 employees in focus groups last year to gauge what employees’ reaction would be to the switch. The employees in the meetings suggested that they wanted to have more control over their retirement accounts.

The company began offering its defined benefit plan in 1967, which permitted employee contributions. However, t ax laws led to a plan fully financed by Empire which automatically enrolled most workers beginning in 1987, said Empire benefits specialist Barb Brown.