More executives of U.S. companies are more concerned with reducing the cost of employee benefits excluding health care, according to a new report released by Prudential Financial and CFO Research services on Thursday.

The report titled “The Future of Retirement and Employee Benefits” marks the first time that non-health care employee benefit costs ranked in the top three concerns of the executives surveyed. Thirty-three percent of the respondents surveyed indicated they are concerned about cutting costs for non-health care benefits such as saving for retirement, which did not come up as a top concern in prior 2009 and 2010 reports.

The survey included 186 survey responses from senior finance executives at mid- to large-sized U.S. companies which have defined benefit plans that have $250 million or more in assets.

At the same time, concerns about the cost of health care benefits have continuously topped the survey results. This year, controlling expenses for the employer for companies providing health care benefits came in as the top concern, with 70% of respondents. That issue also faced a wide margin to the second most prevalent concern, reducing the influence of rising health care costs on employees, which came in with 34% of respondents.

The survey also unveiled three main trends that are coming out of the current environment for employers providing retirement and employee benefits, Christine Marcks, president of Prudential Retirement, said during the report’s presentation in New York on Thursday.

The first trend is the move toward employee choice models with volunteer benefits. The second is an increased focus on de-risking, with an increased number of companies looking to transfer benefit plan risk in the next two years. Finally, the third trend involves greater concerns that employees are delaying retirement because they have not saved enough.

Those issues are a priority for employers, as they work to balance the need to manage benefit costs and still attract employees, said James Gemus, senior vice president at Prudential of life/accidental death and dismemberment products, PruBenefit funding and voluntary benefits.

“Benefits continue to be viewed as an important component of the value of the job, in particular in terms of attracting and retaining the talent that companies want to have,” Gemus said. “They want to control costs, but they want to continue to provide benefits, and they want to be able to provide choice.”

Some of the future benefit decisions the survey found that employers are considering include:

- 29% of companies said they will likely adopt employee benefit choice strategies in two years, while 15% of those respondents have that model today;

- 69% indicated that their companies will likely increase their range of voluntary benefit offerings within two years, and 71% said they may replace some employer-paid benefits with voluntary benefits;

- 43% said they may put a defined benefit risk transfer option in place in the next two years, while 5% of the companies surveyed said they already have that option;

- 31% of companies, up from 20% in 2010, said they are somewhat to very likely to freeze or terminate their defined benefit plans in the next two years; and

- 27% of respondents said they are somewhat or very likely to close their defined benefit plans to new entrants, while 41% of the companies said they are not likely to make that change.