OPEB Funding Policy Opportunities

New Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) statements 74 and 75 are intended to make accounting for OPEB (Other Postemployment Benefits, usually retiree medical) more transparent by moving the entire unfunded liability to the face of the financial statements. This post discusses some of the OPEB funding policy opportunities that employers should consider as they prepare to implement GASB 74/75 over the next two years.

Opportunity #1: The potential for funded status improvement. Unlike pension plans which are generally pre-funded, most public sector OPEB liabilities are unfunded and benefits are pay-as-you-go. But employers should consider that ANY funding policy is better than nothing – and even a modest level of pre-funding will improve the plan’s funded status and balance sheet impact.

Opportunity #2: A funding policy can help lower the calculated liability. The ultimate cost of retiree medical benefits can never be known exactly until benefits are actually paid in the future. However, the best estimate of those costs in today’s dollars is impacted by how (and if) funds are invested. To the extent that investment returns can help fund future benefit costs, an OPEB trust with higher expected returns can help reduce your calculated OPEB liability.

Opportunity #3: Attention can drive action. OPEB liabilities are becoming front-page headlines – particularly because of their unfunded nature. Employers should harness this increased scrutiny to compel stakeholders (e.g., employers, employees, and taxpayers) to collaboratively review OPEB terms and create a strategy to prudently prefund these promises.

There will be pitfalls along the way. It may be difficult to secure additional funding sources when employers and employees are already trying to eliminate existing pension debt. Plus, OPEB costs are usually more volatile than pensions, so an OPEB funding policy will need to consider strategies to deal with this “moving target”.

There may also be situations where an employer does not want to prefund OPEB. Perhaps they fear that “committing” money towards OPEB will reduce their ability to reduce benefit levels in the future. However, this rationale just skirts the larger issue of knowingly promising benefit levels which are unaffordable.

GASB 74/75 is a catalyst for public employers to revisit their OPEB funding policies. There is a limited timeframe for stakeholders to develop a meaningful funding strategy before the entire unfunded liability goes “on the books”.

Top 5 Take-Aways from the GASB OPEB Accounting Exposure Draft

Last week the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) released its long-awaited exposure draft of proposed Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) accounting changes. Although there may be modifications before the rules are finalized, public employers should be aware of the potential consequences. Here’s our list of the top 5 items from the exposure draft:

1. Most of the proposed GASB 67/68 pension changes are carrying over to OPEB – which is not surprising. These include:

– The Net OPEB Liability (NOL; essentially the entire unfunded liability) goes on the face of the financial statements. This will be a major change from the incremental Net OPEB Obligation currently used as the balance sheet liability.

– The discount rate will be based on a projection of whether the employer’s current assets plus projected contributions are expected to cover current plan members’ future benefit payments.

– Enhanced disclosures of historical contributions, funded status, and the basis for selecting actuarial assumptions.

– Accelerated recognition of liability changes in OPEB expense; no more 30 year open amortizations.

– Funding and accounting are officially separated; this means no more ARC.

2. Goodbye community-rating exception to the implicit subsidy liability. Now everyone with blended premiums must calculate an implicit subsidy liability.

3. All plans will now use the Entry Age Normal (level percent of pay) actuarial method to allocate liabilities between past and future service periods. Although OPEB benefits are not usually pay-related, this new requirement is intended to make liabilities more comparable than the 6 different methods currently allowed under GASB 45.

4. Disclosure of the Net OPEB Liability’s sensitivity to changes in medical trend (+/- 1%), discount rate (+/- 1%), and combinations thereof. This means a total of 9 different NOL measurements.

5. Calculation of an Actuarially Determined Contribution (ADC) and development of a funding policy. Although not technically required, employers will need these two important items if they are prefunding their OPEB and not simply using pay-as-you-go funding.

And, as an added bonus, the exposure draft requires actuarial valuations at least biennially and has eliminated the triennial option for employers with fewer than 200 members. Given the volatility of OPEB liabilities, this is probably a better policy.

What do all of these changes mean for public employers? We’re still sorting through all of the details, but the primary outcome is that more effort will be required to prepare OPEB actuarial valuations and the results will have a greater impact on employers’ financial statements.

Although these changes aren’t scheduled to be effective until the fiscal year beginning after December 15, 2016, public employers will want to start thinking about the potential financial impact and whether they will prompt updated OPEB funding and investment policies. Comments regarding the exposure draft are due no later than August 29, 2014.

OPEB Investments – The Danger of Playing It Safe

CautionUnder GASB 43 and 45, public sector employers are required to account for retiree medical benefits under special rules for Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB).  Many have chosen to pre-fund these liabilities in a trust similar to a retirement plan trust.  At the recent Minnesota School Board Association convention, Van Iwaarden Associates teamed up with an investment advisor to emphasize how actuaries and investment advisors should work together to develop a prudent investment policy based on projected benefit payments.

Most policy makers at public sector employers are not investment experts nor are they experienced with pre-funding long term liabilities.  Too often, the decision is made to invest trust assets in “safe” investments just as they do with operating funds.  This is potentially a major mistake, especially now with short term interest rates near zero!

The best practice is to pre-fund retiree medical liabilities and to invest the trust assets in a way that is consistent with the projected cash flow.  Certainly, a substantial portion of the assets should be invested for the short term to meet short term cash flow.  However, the balance of the assets should be invested for the long term to meet projected cash flows twenty to thirty years away.

The recommended action plan for decision makers includes:

1.    Estimate the projected life of the OPEB Trust
2.    Review investment policy and its handling of OPEB
3.    Amend policy and investment strategy appropriately

A detailed actuarial report is the start of the process to manage OPEB liabilities and assets.  The actuarial report can and should be much more than just a perfunctory exercise to meet GASB accounting requirements.
The full presentation can be found through this link.

“Measure It Before You Promise It” for GASB 45 OPEB

Over the past several years, GASB 45 has required public employers to recognize the cost of Other Postemployment Benefits (OPEB: e.g., retiree health insurance, life insurance) while employees are accruing the benefits, not after they retire. For many public entities, the true cost of their healthcare promises has been an eye opener.

However, public employers (especially local entities) should remember that GASB-type calculations are valuable in the “off-season” too. This post discusses one of the biggest missed opportunities for cost-saving: Measuring the cost impact of changes to retiree OPEB before contracts are signed.

In the corporate world, it is almost unheard of for employers to adjust their retiree benefit promises without first measuring the cost impact. This is especially true of collectively-bargained pension and retiree health plans. Both sides hire an actuary to estimate the cost of these benefits and bring their numbers to the table.

However, many local public entities may not be used to this process yet. During the biennial GASB 45 valuation process, we still encounter contractual changes to retiree benefits that occurred after the prior actuarial study but were not reported to us in the interim. There are two main problems with this approach:

  1. It’s not prudent to make or change benefit promises without estimating the cost impact. Suppose an employer is renegotiating a contract and there is a proposal to change the retiree health benefit from “fully-paid single premiums until age 65” to “fully-paid family premiums for up to 5 years”. Is this a cost increase or decrease? There’s no way to know unless you measure the cost beforehand.
  1. GASB 45 requires a full actuarial valuation if there is a significant change in benefit promises.  As we discussed in a previous post, public employers shouldn’t wait until the next scheduled actuarial study (2 or 3 years, depending on plan size) to reflect significant plan changes in their financial statements.

As public employers get acquainted with valuing the actuarial cost of their OPEB benefits for GASB 45 financials, they should embrace the philosophy of “measure it before you promise it” for any changes to these benefits. Public sector OPEB are becoming front page news and administrators must proceed cautiously when adjusting benefits or making new promises.

Top Reasons to Change Your GASB 45 Valuation Schedule

GASB 45 requires a complete actuarial valuation of public retiree health plans to be completed every 2 to 3 years (depending on number of plan members), and sponsors usually don’t look forward to the administrative hassles of their next study. However, there are several situations where a new valuation could be advantageous and, likely, mandatory.

In addition to the standard 2 or 3-year cycle, GASB 45 rules also state that:

“A new valuation should be performed if, since the previous valuation, significant changes have occurred that affect the results of the valuation, including significant changes in benefit provisions, the size or composition of the population, … or other factors that impact long-term assumptions.”

Below are some factors which can compel a new valuation sooner than the standard 2 or 3- year cycle:

  • Establishing an OPEB trust.
    • If a revocable trust is established, then this won’t change the unfunded liability for accounting purposes, but it can affect the liability discount rate. See our previous post on the effect of OPEB trusts on GASB 45 discount rates.
    • If an irrevocable trust is established, the discount rate may be impacted and the assets will decrease the plan’s unfunded liability. This will likely reduce the GASB 45 annual accounting expense (Annual OPEB Cost).
  • Large change in retiree health benefits. This includes changes to plan coverage levels (e.g., deductibles and co-pays), premiums, or eligibility for benefits.

If employment contracts are amended to scale back (or increase) the amount of retiree health benefits paid by the employer, then this can have a big impact on plan liabilities as costs are shifted to retirees. See our previous post on the leveraging effect of OPEB liabilities.

Plan changes will affect the per-member costs and will likely affect future assumptions about retiree participation in the plan. A new valuation should be performed to capture this liability increase (or decrease) as soon as possible for the year of change.

  • Large change in number of employees or retirees. If there are significant employee layoffs/retirements or if many retirees drop coverage due to increasing costs, then a new valuation may be needed to accurately capture the effect on the plan’s GASB 45 liabilities.

There are likely many other scenarios which would require a new GASB 45 study. This is especially true in the case of a plan on the 3-year cycle where there is an increased likelihood of a significant change in the “off-cycle” periods.

It’s now or never for ERRP application

We all knew this day would come, and now it’s here.  New applications for the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program (ERRP) will be received only until 5 pm on Thursday, May 5th.

The last time we blogged about this, the ERRP money was going fast.  Now the urgency is clear.

So if you’ve been thinking about applying, it’s now or never.   Elvis says so.

Understanding the Leveraging Effect of GASB 45 OPEB Liabilities

As public plan sponsors complete their second (or third) actuarial valuation of GASB 45 liabilities, they may be surprised at the potential volatility of their Actuarial Accrued Liability (AAL). There are various factors that can cause large AAL changes, including adjustments to the plan provisions or switching health insurers. This post focuses on a less obvious (though sometimes more powerful) source: the leveraged nature of OPEB liabilities.

The retiree healthcare promises measured under GASB 45 generally consist of two pieces: a gross health claims component (i.e., the expected cost of retiree health coverage) and a premium offset component (i.e., the amount that retirees pay for their coverage). The net OPEB liability is just the difference between these two elements. The following example illustrates how a small change in either of the input components can have a much larger effect on the net liability result. We call it the “leveraging” effect.

Read more…

ERRP funds are going fast, but employers still have time to act

billion of the original $5 billion has now been paid out under the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program (ERRP), according to an article this month in Business Insurance.

We’ve been watching the ERRP since its inception (posts 1, 2, 3, 4), and didn’t think the $5 billion allocation would last long. A July 2010 EBRI article estimated that it would last two years – and it might go even faster than that.   The EBRI article estimates the average reimbursement at about $2,000 per early retiree (Figure 4 on page 5: $2,544m / 1.3m = $1,957) – but there can be huge variations for  your own retiree group.

Many of our clients have applied for the ERRP and have been accepted. For employers that haven’t yet, there’s still time.  And the application process isn’t as onerous as it initially appeared.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Check with your health insurer to see if you’re likely to have any individual early retiree claims above $15,000.  For midsize and large public-sector employers in Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Florida it’s almost a given – because subsidized early retiree coverage (the GASB 45 implicit rate subsidy) is mandated in those states.

2. Fill out and submit the ERRP application. Your health insurer can help with the trickiest parts of the application, i.e. cost control provisions and estimated reimbursements.

3.  Once your application is approved, follow the process on the ERRP website to obtain reimbursements. Your health insurer will have an important role in the reimbursement process, since you won’t usually know when you have an eligible claim.


$1 billion has now been paid out under the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program (ERRP), according to an article this month in Business Insurance http://www.businessinsurance.com/article/20110105/BENEFITS06/110109965.
We’ve been watching the ERRP since its inception (link to previous posts), and didn’t think the $5 billion allocation would last long.  A July 2010 EBRI article http://www.ebri.org/pdf/notespdf/EBRI_Notes_07-July10.Reins-Early.pdf estimated that it would last about two years – but it might go faster than that.
Many of our clients have applied for the ERRP and have been accepted.  For employers that haven’t yet, there’s still time.  And the application process isn’t as onerous as it initially appeared.
Here’s what you need to do:
1.  Check with your health insurer to see if you’re likely to have any individual early retiree claims above $15,000.  For midsize and large government employers in Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Florida it’s almost a given – because subsidized early retiree coverage (the GASB 45 implicit rate subsidy) is mandated in those states.
2.  Fill out the ERRP application www.errp.gov/download/ERRP_Application.pdf.  Your health insurer can help with the trickiest parts of the application, i.e. cost control provisions and estimated reimbursements.  The EBRI article http://www.ebri.org/pdf/notespdf/EBRI_Notes_07-July10.Reins-Early.pdf estimates this at about $2000 per early retiree (Figure 4 on page 5:  $2,544m / 1.3m = $1,957) – but there can be huge variations depending on your own retiree group.
3.  Once your application is approved, follow the process on the ERRP website www.errp.gov/index.shtml to obtain reimbursements.  Your health insurer will have an important role in the reimbursement process, since you won’t usually know when you have an eligible claim.


OPEB Trust Investment Return

Many municipalities, school districts, and other governmental entities have established OPEB trusts as a way of starting to prefund their postretirement benefit promises to employees. In addition to the perceived fiscal responsibility of prefunding OPEB benefits, setting aside assets can also help the plan sponsor’s GASB 45 accounting.

This post deals with certain situations where the anticipated accounting relief from establishing an OPEB trust isn’t as great as expected. This generally occurs when trust assets are invested in very conservative investments and/or a revocable trust is established instead of an irrevocable trust.

Recall the following two important items that affect GASB 45 accounting:

– The Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL). This is the portion of accrued liability for which dedicated assets have not yet been set aside. The UAAL is a significant determinant of the annual GASB 45 accounting expense.

– The discount rate is the basis for determining the present value in today’s dollars of expected future OPEB payments. It is based on the long-term expected return on assets that will be used to pay OPEB benefits. The higher the discount rate, the lower the present value of liabilities.

Read more…

PPACA Starting to Impact Retiree Health Plans

In the retiree benefits world, there is a general consensus that several provisions in the Patient Protection and Access to Care Act (PPACA) may cause employer sponsors of retiree health plans to rethink those programs. These changes include:

– Filling of the Part D “doughnut hole” (2010-2020)

– Guarantee issue insurance with no pre-existing condition exclusions (2014)

– Health insurance exchanges (2014)

These reforms, along with others, will potentially make it less expensive for a retiree to get coverage on the “open market” rather than through their employer-sponsored program. This could be especially true if the retiree only has access to the employer plan and is paying the full premium for coverage.

As reported in the Minneapolis StarTribune recently, 3M is one of the first large employers to disclose that they plan to end their retiree health plan because they feel retirees will likely be able to get better coverage for a lower price under the PPACA reforms. Whether this is a bellwether remains to be seen.

However, the decision to end a retiree health program in anticipation of the full effect of health care reform raises some important issues:

– For retirees who have been on the employer plan for many years, how are they being prepared to “go into the market” and select health insurance?

– If the PPACA provisions are modified or repealed before they fully go into effect, how will this change the insurance options (and costs) for retirees whose employers have decided to eliminate their retiree health plans?

– Would an employer consider reinstating their retiree health plan if PPACA is repealed?