Most U.S. businesses are looking at new ways to keep benefits costs balanced with the need to remain competitive as employers, finds a new study by Prudential Financial Inc., Newark, N.J.

Eighty percent of employers say it’s important to offer and at least partly finance a wide range of employee benefits, according to the study “Employee Benefits: 2006 & Beyond.”

When asked to describe their commitment to benefits, 44% called it “highly important” to offer competitive benefits, while only 22% said it was “less important.”

Although the commitment to benefits was strong across all company sizes, more than half of firms with over 500 employees labeled generous benefits as important, compared to 40% of those with fewer than 100 employees.

However, budget concerns were pushing many employers to think about increasing employee cost-sharing and offering a wider range of voluntary benefits, where employees pay all the cost, Prudential reports.

The study found 19% of employers increased employee contributions this year, while 37% expect to do so by 2010.

Among other cost-saving moves, 24% implemented consumer-directed health plans this year (41% expect to do so by 2010); 16% offered a wider array of voluntary benefits (31% by 2010); and 19% integrated health care and disability management programs (34% by 2010).

In addition, 75% expect to implement CDHPs and integrated health and disability management initiatives by 2010.

Plan sponsors may also begin to show increased interest in flexible benefits, including low-cost, employer-paid plans that start with basic levels of coverage that may later be supplemented by voluntary benefits, according to Prudential’s analysis.

Rising benefit costs as a percent of payroll is causing many employers to bring more executives into the benefits decision-making process, Prudential found. For instance, by 2010, 48% of plan sponsors say that the finance department will be involved in new benefit decisions, while 24% say risk management and 15% say procurement functions will be involved.

For their part, benefit providers are also calling in reinforcements to help them handle an increasingly complex sales process. Prudential found 27% of benefit providers plan to seek outside guidance from benefits brokers-consultants, while another 27% will turn to insurance carriers for help.

Rather than simply focus on costs, a number of employers are seeking to manage benefits as a component of risk, the researchers found. Because of their strategic approach to benefits, Prudential dubbed these sponsors “The Progressives.”

For purposes of the study, Prudential defined progressive employers as those that currently offer benefits that are competitive within their industry and size segment; understand employees’ main financial and life concerns; and are very interested in wellness and prevention programs, disease state management, mental-health counseling and work-life balance initiatives, says Ed Baird, president of Prudential’s group insurance unit.

On average, 11% of employers, or about 68,000 businesses nationwide, labeled themselves “progressive” under Prudential’s definition. Based on survey responses, Prudential found more than 50% of all employers will fit the progressive label by 2010.

Currently, 41% of plan sponsors with more than 10,000 employees and 34% of those with 5,000 to 9,999 employees fit the progressive label, the study concluded.

Prudential’s study was based on an online national random sample conducted in February of around 1,200 benefits decision makers plus 400 employees.

“Our research yields insights about the employee benefits marketplace over the next 5 years that will assist us with building products and services that are valued by both the employers and employees we serve,” Baird said.