Industry Leaders Discuss Tax Treatment of Benefits

August 29, 2012 ( – Workers value their employer-provided health and retirement benefits, but the tax incentives that support these benefits are being scrutinized.

To examine the implications for private-sector health and retirement benefits, as well the costs and consequences and what the numbers are, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently held a day-long policy forum in Washington, DC. Approximately 100 experts, benefits professionals and policymakers attended to provide their perspectives and predictions.    

An EBRI report about the forum notes that the reach and impact of these benefits is immense. Employment-based health benefits are the most common form of health insurance in the United States, covering nearly 59% of all nonelderly Americans in 2010 and 69% of working adults. Assets in employment-based defined benefit (pension) and defined contribution (401(k)-type) plans account for more than one-third of all retirement assets held in the United States, and a significant percentage of assets held today in individual retirement accounts (IRAs) originated as a rollover account from an employer-sponsored program.   

Workers routinely rank their employment-based health coverage as the most important benefit they receive, followed by a retirement plan.    

Since private-sector health benefits alone rank as the largest single “tax expenditure” in the federal budget, various proposals have been made either to reduce or even to phase out the cost of that program to the government. For employers that sponsor these benefits and the workers who receive them the implications are enormous, the EBRI report points out.    

“When you look at some of the recent proposals for reform, benefit plan tax incentives are an area of total and complete volatility, and neither employers nor workers can have any certainty of what lies ahead,” said Dallas Salisbury, president and CEO of EBRI.

The comments from industry professionals about tax treatment of benefits and suggestions for improving benefit plan outcomes included: 

  • Retirement benefits are a tax deferral rather than an exclusion from income—meaning the federal government will eventually recoup the forgone revenue. This distinguishes retirement plan deferrals from other tax exclusions.  
  • A big difference between tax-expenditure estimates and revenue estimates for scoring tax reform is that the latter incorporates taxpayer behavior whereas tax expenditure estimates do not.   
  • Ten percent or fewer of those ages 55 to 60 are making withdrawals from their IRA, compared with 80% of those 71 and older.  
  • On a historical basis, depending on the period measured, pre-retiree balances in defined contribution retirement plans double about every eight to nine years.  
  • Employer match levels seemed to have a bigger impact on older workers, but automatic enrollment seems much more significant in terms of getting younger employees to participate in retirement plans. 
  • Common challenges for underfunded retirement systems worldwide include the need to increase the state pension age and/or “normal” retirement age for full benefits; to promote higher labor-force participation at older ages; to encourage or require higher levels of private saving; to increase retirement coverage of employees and/or the self-employed; and to reduce savings “leakage” prior to retirement.  
The full report is published in the August 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, “’After’ Math: The Impact and Influence of Incentives on Benefit Policy.” online at Speaker presentations, a webcast recording of the event, and other information are online at EBRI’s website at