Visible benefit

New legislation is forcing employers to do more to safeguard their employees\' eyesight. Sam Barrett looks into what it means for optical benefits

With eye tests costing around £20 and recommended once every two years, selling optical cover can seem a bit of a non-starter. But the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter And Corporate Homicide Act last month could make it an important benefit to include in your product recommendations.

Employers have had to provide employees using VDUs with free eye tests and in some cases a basic pair of glasses for several years now (see box) but the Corporate Manslaughter Act is likely to extend an employer’s duty of care to employees who drive as part of their job.

While driving with uncorrected defective vision has been an offence for many years, potentially resulting in a fine, points on your licence or even disqualification, employers could now be in the frame too. Peter Lauris, sales and marketing director at Medicash, explains: “Employers need to make sure staff are fit for their job. If an employer’s giving someone a couple of tonnes of lethal metal to drive round without making sure they have good vision then if that employee then causes an accident they run the risk of being held liable under the Corporate Manslaughter Act.”

As the Corporate Manslaughter Act is still relatively new, it’s too early to know whether the employer would be held liable if an accident did occur. However Andrew Adams, eyecare vouchers sales manager at Accor Services believes it is an area where test cases will be brought. “I’d recommend that where an employee is driving as part of their job, the employer ensures they have an eye test before they are issued with car keys,” he explains.

On top of helping an employer to satisfy legal requirements, an eye examination can pick up other health problems too. “A full eye test can identify other conditions that the employee might not be aware of,” says James Glover, member services director at Healthsure. These can include nasties such as diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels. “With these conditions an early diagnosis can make them much easier to treat,” he adds.

Optical cover can also help an employer attract and retain key employees, especially if they are given flexibility about how they spend the money. “If you put a cash plan in place to provide your employees with optical cover this can be a very low cost but high appreciation benefit,” says Colin Boxall, corporate director of intermediaries at Advo Group. “Employees tend to use it a lot, unlike medical insurance, which is used infrequently.”

Provision of optical cover isn’t just down to the cash plan providers though and there are a number of different ways an employer can provide their employees with eye tests. For many, it’s a case of the employee paying for the test themselves and then claiming this back through petty cash. But, as this is costly in terms of administration, other options are often recommended.

Deals are available from some chains of opticians. These tend to be targeted at larger organisations and are generally arranged directly with the employer. For example Vision Express has its Vision Select scheme, which is free to employers with more than 500 employees. This gives employees a £10 eye examination, which is free if they take out glasses, plus £30 off complete glasses and £70 off direct debit contact lens schemes.

Although this offers good value and meets the employer’s duty of care requirements, the downside is there’s no choice as the employee must use Vision Express to receive the benefit.

More choice is available through optical vouchers, for example Accor Service’s Eyecare Vouchers can be used with 96 per cent of the UK’s opticians. These are bought by the employer and are then given to employees who want to have eye examinations. They then hand them to the optician in exchange for the test or glasses.

Two vouchers are available and there are no restrictions on the size of the organisation. The first voucher, costing £19.95, covers the eye examination while the second, at £55.00, can be used to pay for basic glasses where these are required.

Unfortunately there is no broker incentive priced into Accor Service’s vouchers but Adams says this doesn’t deter brokers. “We are recommended by many brokers who see our product as a good way to cover an employer’s duty of care requirements,” he explains.

Another option is the healthcare cash plan. “Alongside dental, optical cover is one of the main drivers behind the purchase of a cash plan,” says Jill Davies, deputy chief executive at Westfield Health. “Optical claims don’t make up the highest number of claims but they do have the highest cost.”

Entry level products will typically include sufficient optical cover to cover an employer’s duty of care responsibilities. For example, on Healthsure One, which costs £1 a week per employee, employees can claim back 100 per cent of the cost up to a maximum of £50 over a two year period.

As well as providing a good level of cover, the other advantage of a cash plan is the flexibility it offers. “There’s complete freedom of choice over where the employee spends the money and what they spend it on,” says Lauris. “They can put it towards eye tests, glasses or contact lenses.”

With the employer-paid plans it’s also possible to put an entry level plan in place and give the employee the option to trade up if they like. Davies says that employers could choose to pay as little as £1 a week per employee, with employees adding in up to an extra £5 a week to increase their benefit levels. “This might work well if someone knows they’re going to regularly update their designer frames,” she explains.

Additionally, the way an employee accesses the benefit on a cash plan can make it more valuable than other forms of optical cover. “With a voucher the employee isn’t necessarily aware of the financial input from the employer,” explains Davies. “But, as they pay and claim the money back with a cash plan, they do appreciate the value of the benefit more.”

Cash plans aren’t restricted to optical cover either. Although it’s one of the key benefits in the mix, employees can also access benefits such as physiotherapy, chiropractic, consultations, health screening and, most wanted product of the moment, dental cover.

Although they deliver these other benefits, Ingrid Skoglund, managing director of intermediaries Benefits for Business, says healthcare cash plans can be very cost effective. “You can set one up for not much more than you’d pay to look after your employee’s eye examinations,” she explains.

It is possible to strip out some of these additional benefits, although this won’t take a lot off the premium. Further, even the most basic plan will cover more than optical to ensure it doesn’t just turn into a payment plan. For example, one of the plans Boxall likes is Healthsure’s Focus. This is a company paid scheme covering optical, dental, stress counselling and a legal, domestic and debt advice helpline. “For £10 a month, employees can get £250 of dental cover a year plus £250 of optical every two years,” he explains.

There’s also a cheaper option on Healthsure’s Focus, at £48 a year. This gives £100 of dental cover a year and £100 of optical cover every two years.

Benefit bespoking is also possible, although most providers will only entertain this for groups with 200 or more employees. An exception to this is Westfield Health’s Mosaic, which allows groups as low as 30 to flex their benefit package.

Skoglund says that the medical insurers are also waking up to the merits of optical cover. “You can include optical cover as an option with several of the insurers including Norwich Union and BCWA,” she explains.

This trend is likely to continue too. With the Corporate Manslaughter Act making it even more important for employers to look after their employees’ eyesight, optical cover will come into sharp focus in the coming months.