Negotiating health benefits: what you can ask for and how

Sep 14, 2022

5 mins

Negotiating health benefits: what you can ask for and how
Katie Arnold-Ratliff

Katie is a US-based writer and editor.

After all the resumé polishing, anxious interviewing, and thoughtful offer-mulling, you’ve finally reached the negotiation stage of the recruitment process. Congratulations! Except that for most jobseekers, this can be a tad nerve-wracking. You may be wondering what is—and, just as important, what is not—okay to ask for, and how to go about stating your bottom line. Your benefits package is roughly equal to 30 percent of your total compensation—so it’s wise to make sure you’re not leaving anything on the table. Employers are still struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic and subsequent labor shortage in the US, but the silver lining for job hunters is that they hold more bargaining power than before, so why not use it?

Of course, some things are likely not worth trying to haggle over. For example, in a company that’s not at all remote-friendly, you’d have to have some superhuman leverage to finagle working from home as a perk. But some things are worth asking about, and whether you know it or not, your prospective health insurance policy may offer more wiggle room than you think. “I think it’s absolutely possible to negotiate health benefits—or the equivalent in a monetary sum,” says HR and talent acquisition consultant Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of and host of the Workology podcast. “If a company really wants to hire you, they will typically concede if you offer options rather than just asking for a single thing, so be prepared to bring these up when negotiating.”

Here are a few requests worth considering when it comes to negotiating your healthcare benefits:

  • Can you start receiving health benefits right away?
  • Does the company offer wellness incentives?
  • Does the company subsidize any targeted health programs?
  • Can you bump up your hours to full-time?

Can you start receiving health benefits right away?

Many employers don’t offer medical coverage for new employees until a waiting period has been completed, lasting up to a federally mandated maximum of ninety days. You can consider requesting that the waiting period be waived, saving you significantly if you’re using stopgap health insurance between jobs.

But if your employer can’t accommodate this request, there is another option. “Even if a company has a rule that health benefits do not begin until 90 days after your start date, you can ask if they will pay for COBRA for that time period so that you do not have a lapse in coverage,” says Miller-Merrell. That’s a potential savings of hundreds of dollars.

Does the company offer wellness incentives?

Many companies now offer wellness incentive programs—roughly 54 percent of American employees have access to one—which encourage employees to hit certain exercise, weight, biometric, and mental health goals. Ace these annual tests and, depending on the company, you may receive a discount on the next year’s health policy premiums.

Miller-Merrell shares that “It’s common to get a healthcare stipend if the company doesn’t offer benefits at all.” This could cover anything from running shoes and yoga mats to gym memberships, so it’s worth asking about.

If your potential employer doesn’t offer any wellness incentives, feel free to suggest that they consider doing so—and in the meantime, ask whether taking any health assessments could reduce your healthcare premiums, which is an accommodation some employers offer.

Does the company subsidize any targeted health programs?

Because certain health habits can lead to long-term health problems (which are costly for employers subsidizing health insurance), some companies are willing to pay for classes or programs that help with health concerns like quitting smoking, weight loss, stress management, and more. Even if your company doesn’t have a program like this in place, consider suggesting one—or asking them to try out just such a policy, starting with you.

The CDC provides a wide range of resources related to workplace health programs, and it could be worth mentioning this in the negotiation stage, highlighting the benefits for employers. For example, a workplace health program implemented at Duke University aims to help employees control high blood pressure and cholesterol and has a positive return on investment. A similar program at Johnson & Johnson has also proved beneficial for the company as they see a long-term impact on controlling healthcare costs. If your potential employer needs some convincing evidence, why not use these scenarios to back up your case?

Can you bump up your hours to full-time?

If your future company only offers health insurance to full-timers and your offer pegs you as a part-time employee, it’s worth asking if you can bring your working hours to the minimum that qualifies as full-time—particularly if you’re not too far off. As the saying goes, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get!”

Keep in mind that in today’s labor market, and with around 25 million Americans working part-time, you hold a lot of negotiating power. Even if your potential employer doesn’t normally provide part-time employees with health insurance, they may be willing to reconsider if they’re having trouble hiring for your role.

If all else fails, have a backup plan

Try as you might, you could find yourself in a situation where the healthcare plan is absolutely non-negotiable on your potential employer’s end. But all hope is not lost! You may be able to use the plan’s shortcomings as a bargaining chip. If there are things on which your prospective employer won’t budge, like the amount they’re willing to contribute to your Health Savings Account (HSA), for example, consider using that to make a case for a higher salary. Says Miller-Merrell, “For example, if you have an offer from a new company and their health insurance has a high deductible, you can ask to increase your salary by that amount in order to compensate for a higher deductible plan.”

If the company’s healthcare plans are so deficient you prefer to decline their coverage, mention that you intend to use your spouse’s healthcare plan, saving the business considerable money—isn’t that worth one more week of vacation time? And if you’re serious about not using your job’s health benefits, ask if they offer cash-in-lieu-of-benefits waivers, which pay employees not to sign up for company benefits. If your new employer’s higher medical plan premiums negate the increase in pay you’d be getting by switching jobs, speak up, since your new company may be inclined to make up the difference.

Even if negotiation doesn’t work and you’re stuck with undesirable benefits, you still have options. Can you and your spouse arrange your respective employer insurance plans so you’re each partly covered by both? This strategy—called Coordination of Benefits (COB)—can increase the amount covered when you seek care. If your job only offers a high deductible plan, know that this entitles you to open a private HSA without your employer’s involvement, into which you can stash funds to help defray the costs of medical care. Finally, you can also speak directly to your doctor about lowering their fees or offering a cash-up-front discount, and your pharmacist can tell you if there are generic versions of your medications or if their manufacturers offer discounted rates based on income level.

The bottom line is this: as health insurance rates steadily rise and employer contributions continue to fall, it’s a great time to pay heightened attention to the ins and outs of your healthcare plan. You may feel uneasy playing hardball—but the benefits of good benefits are hard to overstate. And, says Miller-Merrell, “When the offer is on the table, everything is negotiable.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook on LinkedIn and on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every week!

Topics discussed