A Conversation With… Ewart 'Odie' O'Hara
To mark its 15th year of publishing, Benefits and Pensions Monitor is featuring a series of conversations with people who have made a significant contribution to the industry.
Originally from Cardinal, a town in Eastern Ontario, Ewart ‘Odie’ O’Hara spent most of his early life on a farm there. In the early ’50s, he attended St. Lawrence University in New York State, where he studied Business Administration. Upon graduation in the spring of 1957, he went to work for AETNA Life, based in Hartford, Detroit, and, eventually, Toronto.
The following is an edited version of the conversation between O’Hara and Benefits and Pensions Monitor Executive Editor Joe Hornyak.
Benefits and Pensions Monitor: How did the benefit trusts come to Canada?
Ewart O’Hara: The International Construction Unions brought the concept of benefit trusts to Canada.
During the Second World War, the U.S. had wage controls, but they didn’t include other forms of compensation in the wage controls. So, the unions negotiated benefit programs and took over the administration of the first group life, disability, and very modest healthcare programs.
When the war ended, Senator Robert Taft and Congressman Frederick Allan Hartley, Jr. decided that the benefit programs being run by the unions had to be repositioned under the control of the employers.” A compromise solution was reached wherein those plans were put in trusts controlled by both the employers and the unions. The unions disagreed, strenuously. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 codified the benefit trust arrangement.
That concept grew fairly rapidly in the U.S. Even though it started in the manufacturing industry, it was adopted by the construction industry where tradesmen, having no continuous employer relationship, were able to secure fringe benefits via employment-related contributions to a trust. Later, the construction trades brought the concept to Canada.
BPM: How did you get involved?
EO: Back in late 1958, there was a confluence of interesting factors.
First, the government of Ontario had just announced that it was going to introduce a public healthcare program. As a result, the insurance companies scrambled to replace the premium income they were going to lose, which could be as much as two-thirds of their health insurance business.
AETNA decided to bolster its premium income by developing expertise in the trusteed benefit arena, which was just being established in 1958.
As the bottom guy on the totem pole, I was tapped to learn the Taft Hartley concept. So you had benefit trusts starting up in Canada, an insurance company wanting to secure that new market, and a young man trained to exploit the situation. It was a right-placeand-time scenario.
BPM: Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how you became involved with the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IF)?
EO: Since the IF was, initially, dedicated to training stakeholders in the benefit trust field, I attended its first Canadian conference. I was not officially involved, but, once in the door, there was a natural progression to speaking assignments and committee work. I became a director, chaired the Ottawa Legislative Update, spoke many times, and produced their first two training videos.
BPM: You’ve spent 50 years in the business. Looking back, would you say we’re better off with the way things are today with the level of regulation or have we gone too far?
EO: In some ways, we’ve gone too far. In some cases, the regulators seem to lose track of their primary purpose, which is to protect the beneficial interests of the people in benefit plans.
The most glaring example is the regulation of multi-employer (trusteed) pension plans. Quite properly, the regulators worry about plan sponsors becoming insolvent and, hence, losing their financial ability to fund pension commitments. The related regulations, however, have been construed to fend off failures by single-employer plan sponsors. In those cases, if the sponsor goes down, so does the pension plan.
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