5 Employee Benefits Trends to Watch in 2017

Open enrollment for employee benefits is underway and wrapping up at many companies across the country, and as you probably noticed, health care costs continue to rise. The Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Education Trust 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey found that annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage amounted to $18,142 this year, up 3 percent from last year. On average, workers paid just under a third of the cost of their coverage.

[Read: Open Enrollment: Deciding Between a PPO, HMO, EPO or POS Plan.]

To keep costs in check, many employers are gravitating towards high-deductible health plans and telemedicine, according to Jeff Griffin, president of the JP Griffin Group, an employee benefits advisory company headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. Telemedicine options such as using phone or video chat technology help to "facilitate access to coverage but keep the cost low as well," Griffin explains. Many basic types of care, including doctor visits for sinusitis, strep throat, pink eye and ear infections, can be administered using telemedicine tools, he adds.

Apart from the growth of telemedicine offerings, the new presidential administration could bring major changes to health care, though it's unclear what would replace these marketplaces if they're repealed and when changes would take effect. Given this uncertainty, the options available to you during open enrollment likely followed the mandate as it stands now. "We're proceeding under the current regulatory environment, but we're preparing employers for a discussion around new options as the year unfolds," says Dard Hunter, president of employee benefits at CLS Partners, an employee benefit advisory company based in Austin, Texas.

Beyond health care costs, here's what the new year could mean for your health plan and other employee benefits.

1. More help navigating the health care system. Rising health care costs strain employers and employees, but one positive development is that some employers now offer benefits that help plan participants understand their health care options and make more informed decisions. Traditionally, employees were left to fend for themselves when it came to using their health care benefits, says Jim Winkler, chief innovation officer for health care at Aon Hewitt, a human resources, consulting and benefits firm. But that's changing thanks to new benefits offerings.

Winkler points to health care consulting companies like Quantum Health that help guide employees through insurance and health care questions. "They actually replace the 800-number for the health plan on the back of your health care card," he explains. According to Winkler, companies like that can answer employees' questions: "Did my claim get paid? Is my doctor in network?" Some health care consulting companies take a more proactive approach by making recommendations. For instance, if an employee were calling to find an endocrinologist, the phone representative might highlight other employee benefits such on-site Weight Watchers meetings to help them manage their weight and reduce the severity of health conditions such as diabetes, Winkler says.

2. Ancillary benefits. In addition to traditional benefits such as health insurance, dental coverage and a vision plan, Hunter sees more employers offering employees options, including accident coverage, critical illness coverage, pet insurance or group legal plans. "These things used to be rare considerations or maybe not considered at all, but most employers are now realizing with the quality of product on the market, there is tons of room for these types of products to be offered through their benefits plan," he says.

"The employer works with a broker or consultant like us to select an appropriate menu based on their own demographics or their own cultural requirements," Hunter adds. For instance, the cultural and demographic makeup of one employer might point to an interest in pet insurance if that employer values pets as part of the family, while others might prioritize life insurance if reducing risks is a cultural priority. Typically, the employer does not pay for these benefits, but the employee might benefit from group rates and the convenience of automatic payroll deductions rather than buying coverage on his or her own. Still, if you're cost-conscious, you might want to compare the benefits package price to what you can purchase independently or through your own broker to ensure that group pricing through your employer is your best option.

[See: The 6 Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance.]

3. Continued interest in wellness programs. Employers continue to recognize the value of newer programs that address physical or emotional well-being so that their employees can stay healthy and productive. However, Winkler says employers are using fewer financial incentives than in the past. For example, some employers who offered cash incentives or lower health care premiums found that low financial incentives didn't change behavior or, if they were too high, incentivized employees to try to game the system. Instead of giving employees cash for logging a certain number of steps or adopting other healthy behaviors, "what you're starting to see now is companies might do a Fitbit challenge, and they might have goofy prizes for who wins," he says. "It's a friendly team competition [rather than a cash prize]," he adds.

4. Growth of financial wellness programs. Employer-provided financial wellness programs have been picking up steam for the past few years. "Every year we do a survey of HR professionals, primarily at large employers, and far and away the number one initiative was this notion of building and expanding financial wellness tools in ways that go beyond retirement," says Rob Austin, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt.

"If someone can't afford to come into work and be fully dedicated because they're worried about a creditor calling them, that employee is not the best employee they can be," Austin adds. "They want to help that employee get on more stable financial footing," he explains. Even at companies where the staff is likely to have creditors calling, employers are providing tools and resources that help employees learn to create a budget, plan for major expenses such as college or a new home and understand other money concepts. In 2016, several companies made headlines by offering student loan repayment assistance, but Austin says it's still a very small number of employers offering this benefit.

5. More telecommuting. Telework and telecommuting became trendy five years ago, and the number of employers offering these options continues to grow. The percentage of employers offering telecommuting on an ad hoc basis has increased from 45 percent in 2012 to 56 percent in 2016, according to a 2016 Employee Benefits survey report conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. "I think we'll still continue to see telecommuting and flexible work arrangements grow," says Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics at SHRM. "As technology continues to improve, we'll see changes in how companies approach telecommuting," Esen adds.

[Read: 6 Ways Telecommuters Can Show They're Part of the Team.]

Similarly, Esen is seeing more employers providing a stipend for a phone or computer rather than simply providing one to employees. "It's a sign of being a little more practical and recognizing that smartphone use is very high now and you can do your personal and your work using the same device relatively seamlessly," Esen adds.

Susan Johnston Taylor has contributed to the money section of USNews.com since 2011, covering everything from personal finance apps and spending strategies to mortgages, insurance and estate planning. Her articles on business and personal finance have also appeared in or on The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Learnvest, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. Susan's goal is to offer readers new insights and practical ways to save money, advance their careers or improve their lives. You can find her on Twitter @UrbanMuseWriter.