Older baby boomers working for large companies - and looking to downshift to less-demanding employment- could be the immediate beneficiaries.
Effective next month, federal subsidies will allow employers to recoup a big chunk of the cost of medical claims for retirees ages 55 to 64 not yet eligible for Medicare, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement expected Tuesday.
However, in the long run, experts predict that President Barack Obama's health overhaul will accelerate the decline of employer-sponsored retiree coverage, by making it easier for people to find and keep affordable coverage on their own.
Starting in 2014, the health care law forbids insurers from denying coverage to people with medical problems, limits what the companies can charge older individuals, and sets up competitive health insurance markets called exchanges - where consumers can buy a policy, in many cases with direct government assistance. Early retirees will have options they don't currently enjoy.
"Employers have been offering these benefits because there is no alternative source of coverage," said economist Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. "I think they're going to be asking themselves why they should continue offering retiree coverage. There is no question this is something that is on employers' minds."
Preventing an immediate rush to the exits by employers is one of the main goals of the new subsidy program, authorized under the health care overhaul law. Among employers with 500 or more workers, only 28 percent offer health benefits to early retirees, down from 46 percent in 1993, according to Mercer, a benefits consulting firm.
Under the program, employers can get reimbursed for up to 80 percent of the cost of medical claims between $15,000 and $90,000 for their early retirees. The government payments can be used to reduce premiums for retirees and their dependents, or by employers to keep their own costs in check. The benefit takes effect June 1.
Large companies and labor unions successfully lobbied to include the early retiree subsidy in the broader health overhaul. Nearly 2 million people ages 55-64 currently have health insurance through a former employer.
Congress set aside $5 billion to finance the benefit until Jan. 1, 2014, but it's unclear how long the money will last. Employers are expected to sign up without delay.
Passage of the law has prompted employers to reassess whether they need to keep any of their retirees on workplace health plans over the long run.
In addition to the early retiree subsidy, the overhaul law improves Medicare benefits by gradually closing the prescription drug coverage gap called the "doughnut hole." That will benefit retirees over age 65. Even now, some companies are starting to provide their retirees with a fixed payment for health care, a voucher that limits their own exposure.
"Once the insurance exchanges are up and running, it provides a ready vehicle for early retirees that does not exist today," explained Ron Fontanetta, a principal with the benefits consulting firm TowersWatson. "You couple that with an improved Medicare drug program, and it begs the question whether employers really need to be in the retiree game at all."