• Portable Benefits: A Good Idea But Caution Required

    In 2021, the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC) recommended that the Ontario government appoint an expert panel to design and test a portable benefits program where contributors could be employers, workers, and the government. The idea is to provide health and dental benefits to millions of Canadians who are gig workers or who change jobs often. In response, the Government created the Portable Benefits Advisory Panel and is currently soliciting feedback from stakeholders. The panel is expected to issue a report with their recommendations in 2023.

    Overall, providing a portable benefits program in Ontario to workers who fall outside of traditional employment is a pretty good idea. It stands to take some strain off our health system since those with benefits are more likely to have health problems diagnosed and treated early. It helps create a healthier workforce – which is good for everyone. Not to mention the fact that taking care of each other is just the right thing to do.

    The issue though, is not without its challenges. Millions of workers who already have excellent health coverage through their employers will rightly object should they experience decreased access or disruptions to their coverage.

    Further, the insurance sector is a major employer in London and in many other cities, and any major upheaval to the sector could potentially have severe consequences to local economies. (Not to mention the fact that benefits provided through the private sector are almost always going to of a higher quality that benefits offered by government).

    So how can the province take its first tentative steps into the world of portable benefits? Here are a few ideas:

    1. The government should clearly define the scope and governance of the program, including:
    • the types of workers that would be covered (e.g., gig economy workers, part-time workers, independent contractors, self-employed workers, etc.)
    • the types of benefits that workers could potentially access (e.g., drug benefit, dental care, vision care, mental health care, basic life insurance, etc.);
    • the expected roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders in administering, funding, and managing the program (e.g., government, employers and other hiring entities, workers, private sector insurance providers, etc.); and
    • the intended program outputs (e.g., product development, program funding, etc.).
    1. A new program should seek to fill benefit gaps for workers who fall outside of traditional employer-provided benefits and avoid decreasing access and disrupting existing programs and services that are working well for many Ontarians, which should include exploring opportunities to leverage private sector products and capabilities.
     
    1. Program design should prioritize flexibility, portability, proportionality, and affordability and leverage service design principles including human-centered design and stakeholder engagement to meet diverse worker needs across the province.
     
    1. The government could explore program integration and/or funding options related to forthcoming national pharma care and dental care agreements.
     
    1. The government could consider proceeding with a pilot project (e.g., in a specific industry, covering a certain type of worker, etc.) to avoid unintended consequences, ensure value for taxpayer dollars, develop appropriate measures, adjust approach based on feedback and lessons learned, and gather relevant data on the program’s efficacy and outcomes.
     
    - Kristen Duever, VP Public Affairs