Advising’s top minds tout tech expertise, data transparency and broker sophistication

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Harnessing the power of technology to bring clients cost-saving, innovative insurance and benefit solutions, all while building brokerage business, provided a strong theme across Employee Benefit Adviser’s live events throughout 2016. Brokers and consultants from across the U.S. attended EBA events in Atlantic City, N.J., Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn., to network with likeminded advisers and gain tools and perspectives to enhance their careers.

Some top moments from the shows provide takeaways that can be applied to advisers’ business strategy in 2017 and beyond.

Technological expertise
At Workplace Benefits Renaissance in Atlantic City in March, Michael Lujan, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Limelight Health, spoke about key technology trends advisers must be following. A top priority: integrated HR, benefits, compliance and payroll. “While every small business has a common need, they don’t have a fully dedicated benefits and HR department. I think the market is clearly responding to that need,” he said.

Advisers can help clients narrow the field of vendors able to provide such services by first meeting with them face to face, Lujan said. “Have lots of meetings,” he said, adding that advisers should interview vendors just as they would a potential employee, “because, in many cases, the vendors they choose are effectively going to be joining their team.”

Read the full article: “Dealing with rapid advancements in technology and its industry disruption.”

Innovative plan design
As premium increases continue, another session at Workplace Benefits Renaissance focused on giving a second look to previously discounted solutions, such as self-funding, PEOs and captives.

“We must provide insights and solutions that drive employee engagement, change behaviors and create an environment of personal responsibility for healthcare,” said Paul Fetterolf, senior consultant and market leader of Arthur J. Gallagher, in a panel discussion.

Premium increases, he said, are being driven by a myriad of market occurrences, including the ACA, but especially by expensive specialty pharmaceuticals. Treatments are being created for diseases that previously had none, and they are costly. Pharmaceuticals account for more than 9% of an employer’s overall health spend, he said.

Read the full article: “Employers considering new options to counter health hikes.”

A new business model
By July’s Workplace Benefits Mania, the message to advisers was even more to the point: “Get out of the business of giving things away,” Jack Kwicien, principal of Baltimore-based consultancy Daymark Advisors, told brokers during a panel at the Las Vegas event.

“You can’t define yourself as an access point to products or services,” he said. “If you define yourself that way, you will be disintermediated by an exchange. Everyone has access to products. Your differentiator has to be your expertise.”

Amy Evans, president of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Colibiri Insurance Services, encouraged advisers to expand their definition of consulting services, and watch their client base expand in the process. She has started working for employer groups that would normally not be a good fit as clients on the brokerage side of her agency, due to their size.

“You’ll hear ‘consulting’ over and over because you can assess a dollar amount to expertise,” Evans said. Evans currently works with a 350-employee company that just had an acquisition and hired her to guide them through the RFP process for a new broker.

Read the full article: “How to morph from broker to consultant.”

Voluntary sophistication
Meanwhile, an increasing number of advisers are gaining experience in the voluntary area, leading to more competition and raising the bar for brokers working in the space, said Gil Lowerre, president of Eastbridge Consulting Group, at the Vegas show. Nearly 95% of all brokers sell voluntary today, making voluntary benefit plan design increasingly sophisticated.

“This is a fundamental issue for everyone that serves the industry,” he added. A mediocre offering is no longer a choice. “Those days are gone. The bar has been raised,” Lowerre said.

In an Eastbridge survey, 38% of brokers who only sell voluntary said competition was at ‘high’ or ‘somewhat high’ levels today, while 18% of employee benefit brokers said the same. Just 1% of benefit brokers and 0% of voluntary brokers said there was no competition.

Read the full article: “The new ‘challenge’ of selling voluntary products.”

Expanded offerings
To help advisers stay innovative, Debra Tucker, director of new business at Options Plus, and Frank Villares, managing partner at Premier Benefit Solutions, offered attendees at September’s Workplace Benefits Summit in Nashville, Tenn., insight on the latest discount benefit programs.

“I think more than anything [discount benefits] are definitely affordable, customizable, flexible, a solution-based product, and for brokers, it is residual income,” Tucker said. “The affordability factor is the biggest thing, especially when you are working with specific markets segments or market segments who just don’t have extra money and are cutting dental or cutting vision, this would be a really affordable way to bring in products that the employer can still offer to the employee without breaking the bank.”

However, for a successful offering, customization is key, said Villares. “Some of these benefits will give you some good reputable networks to choose from, assuming the price point is good, but the customizable part is what is important,” he said. “Sometimes we run into [a client] who has a telemedicine benefit already built into their health plan. So they ask, ‘Why duplicate the effort?’ Then we can just take the telemedicine portion out of this discount plan and just concentrate on the dental or vision aspects.”

Read the full article: “How brokers can increase revenue while serving clients.”

Transparent information
The battle to reduce healthcare costs will not be won without transparency, Mary Catherine Person, president, HealthSCOPE Benefits, said at Workplace Benefits Summit. But there’s more to the task than just making information available, she added: “When you look at transparency, one of the keys is how do you get people to use it? As well as what is the data that is involved with it?”

The process starts with getting employees to understand what their healthcare costs mean. That is one of the keys in the work we have done: being able to stratify by individual services and what things cost such as helping people understand the variants in the MRI down to the individual provider,” said Person.

This is what benefit providers and insurance brokers must build into the healthcare markets, according to Nancy Reardon, chief product officer for Maestro Health. “We need to create opportunity where we are engaging consumers to they have their personalized information available to them and get them to build that habit,” she said.

Read the full article: “Employees slow to adopt healthcare transparency tools.”

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