An adviser who cuts through the healthcare clutter

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If you want to make EBA Most Influential Women in Benefit Advising winner Suzanne McGarey chuckle, ask her what she loves about her job.

“I used to say that I loved that this job was always changing,” says the managing principal of Ascende with a laugh. “And goodness knows it continues to change.”

Working out of the Houston office of Ascende, a division of EPIC, McGarey’s clients include large national companies with an average of 1,500 employees. Her focus these days is less on helping employers pick their medical insurance providers, but rather more on how employees can save money when navigating through the maze of benefit provider networks and helping them make the right decisions. This can be a challenge for her oil-and-gas clients that have employees who work in remote parts of the country where access to more than one hospital or a team of specialists can be a luxury.

“My job is to work with the team and develop strategies for clients to manage their employee benefits. The strategies have to be customized to different industries, and to their attraction and retention policies that the employees are seeking,” she says.

To select this year’s Most Influential Women honorees, EBA editors asked readers to submit the names of thought leaders who are making their mark on the benefit business through their unique approaches to client relations, benefits technology and/or mentoring other women. From the dozens of submissions received, the editors chose 30 benefit advisers to recognize for their outstanding achievements.

One of McGarey’s missions is to inspire employees to use data analytics tools to shop for the best care. “Luckily, we haven't had that problem (of employees driving hundreds of miles for an MRI) on a daily basis, but more and more, we are trying to manage folks into centers of excellence,” says the 16-year Ascende veteran. “If they have good providers, we try to make the case for people to travel, probably not for an MRI, but for certain types of major surgeries or ongoing treatments.”

An uphill battle
The University of Texas at Austin graduate says that along with wellness tools, clients are clamoring for more data analytics and telemedicine for remote employees. She is a firm believer that objective transparent data of medical costs and services truly helps workers. “Employees will fare better in these consumer-driven health plans if we can give them something that tells them what the quality is as well as the price comparison points,” she says, while acknowledging that convincing workers with a full-time job and busy family lives can be an uphill battle.

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“The reality is when we ask employees to go into consumer-driven health plans, we purport to have tool that will provide transparency, but a lot of times it is extremely difficult for individuals and the employers who are supporting them to determine something that is a bit more complex beyond an office visit,” she says.

While she is seeing employees express interest in professional advocacy services, “the tools are not exactly intuitive,” she says. “You need some medical knowledge to know how to drill down to where you want to get to. The advocacy services are helpful in that way.”

McGarey boasts more than 25 years of service in the employee benefits business. She started her career at Thomas Perrin and went on to Business Health Companies, where she helped develop the Houston Healthcare Purchasing Organization PPO. She is a member and speaker at the Benefits Bootcamp sponsored by The Houston chapter of ISCEBS and she serves on the National advisory council of UnitedHealthcare and the executive advisory council for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

And her work is not done. “There is still a lot to do with managing healthcare bills, like [helping employees] try to understand what you should pay versus what the insurance company says you should pay,” she says.

“This industry is unique because I really feel we are helping people help their families while they are being productive members of society. But there is so much that it is constantly moving and changing. You never feel bored — ever.”

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