When Jennifer Eilers took on a new client in the summer of 2012, the medical device company was facing a $1.2 million renewal increase. Unacceptable to Eilers, she and her team at Intercare Insurance Solutions, a Hub International Company, dove into the details of the account and didn't give up until that renewal dropped from 12.8% to 3.3% - with added plan enhancements.

After a month-long nomination process that asked applicants to describe innovative efforts, achievements and growth in the last year, the EBA editors are proud to name Eilers as our 2013 Employee Benefit Adviser of the Year. Her long-term strategic approach to benefits, combined with a team-oriented dedication to constant improvement, sets an example for the entire industry.

 

Creative innovation

Growing up just outside Washington, D.C., in the Maryland suburbs, Eilers earned a degree in psychology with a concentration in biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She intended to use her education as a springboard to becoming a physical therapist, but after spending time with her ailing grandmother at her retirement home Eilers realized the treatment side of the health care equation wouldn't be the right fit for her.

Instead, she took a job in Baltimore on the financing side as an underwriter with Performax, a company specializing in packaging self-funded health plans. "I could still feel like I was a part of health care, but I didn't technically treat," she says. "It worked out well, because I feel health care is really important."

After a few years there, Eilers moved to the Bethesda, Md., offices of Willis, where she served as an account manager before her husband Erik's job moved the couple to San Diego. Eilers soon found a job as a senior associate with Mercer, where she stayed for nine years until Linda Keller, who'd hired her at Mercer, recruited her to be an account executive for Intercare, also in San Diego, in the spring of 2012.

After nearly 16 years in the industry, Eilers appreciates the lessons learned from each of her employers. Performax gave her a place to get her feet wet, and then Willis and Mercer provided the opportunity to understand the process of benefits, she says. "There's a process for everything at those large firms and it's really a great place to learn process, to be surrounded by people and understand that, and figure out what's the right way to do things - learning all the underwriting basics," Eilers says.

But, doing everything "in the prescribed, corporate way" can have a downside as well. Eilers was intrigued by the opportunity Intercare presented to do things a little bit differently. "We're allowed to - I don't want to say make mistakes - but we're allowed to take risks a little bit more," she says.

At Intercare, Eilers' clients range from about 250 lives to 2,500 lives. Some are fully insured, but most are self-funded, and the majority of them have consumer-driven health plans in place "because they really believe in it," says Eilers.

Ranging from bio technology firms to medical device producers to call center populations, Eilers' clients are mostly multi-site national firms. "I really want to get to know my clients and really understand their business needs ... you really can't have a one-size-fits-all in our industry," she says.

For example, ResMed Corp., the client that saved 9.5% on renewal for 2013 thanks to Eilers, produces sleep disorder breathing treatments. In her strategy discussions with them, Eilers learned the company is looking for a way to enhance their market share. Knowing that was a priority, she and her team worked with ResMed to put a pilot program in place for ResMed's employees on the company's PPO plan to have sleep-related disorders, from diagnosis to treatments to follow-ups, fully covered by the plan. It took some work to get the list of necessary billing codes from the insurance carrier and line everything up, but the plan is now in place. "Now they're able to pilot this program with their own population and then eventually can find the best way to launch it to market," says Eilers.

"Jennifer has exceeded our expectations and supported our business and our employees in very meaningful and strategic ways," says Nikki Kelly, senior benefits manager, Americas, at ResMed, in a letter supporting Eilers' nomination. "Jennifer and her team were instrumental in several initiatives that benefited employees while facilitating substantial savings that can now be used toward business initiatives such as product development. Jennifer has also helped us break new ground in ways to market and improve access to our products."

 

Strategy sessions

Eilers' strategic skills are one reason that Keller, now EVP, consulting and account management at Intercare, recruited her. "She's highly professional. She presents incredibly well in front of a client. She's knowledgeable. She knows how to develop strategy," says Keller. "The biggest thing for Jen is a lot of times when you have somebody who gets that side of it they don't necessarily connect with the client. You're either very strategic and thoughtful in your processes or you've got great relationships with your clients. And Jen's got one of those unique skill sets where she can do both."

The need for strategic thinking in benefits "has become so much more critical" and Eilers excels at recognizing the key components of a client's benefit needs and then piecing them together, adds Keller. With each client, Eilers and her team will have a formal strategic planning meeting at the beginning of each year where she shares what she knows about the client and asks how that has changed in order to understand what their needs are for the coming year.

"We always have an over-arching three-year strategy that drills down on what their overall goals are," she says. "Then we drill that down a little bit more: how are we going to meet those goals and what are the different parameters that we're going to use around wellness, around consumerism. How are we going to measure those pieces? What are the blocking and tackling things that we're going to do? How are we going to communicate those pieces?"

Despite the long-term outlook, Eilers says one of the most important parts of the three-year plan is the need to tweak it every year - ensuring all players at the client company are part of the process. "It's absolutely key that we have a documented strategy on how everyone is doing things and everyone has buy-in on that," she says, "our team does, their HR team does, their finance team does."

Employers are not likely to resist the long-term approach, but it does require a change in mindset from the traditional "benefits as a commodity" outlook, says Eilers. "It's a somewhat forward-thinking strategy because for so long benefits have been a commodity. You just offer them, you don't really think about it," she says. "Some look at is a way to attract, recruit and retain employees, but you have to think about the competitive advantage. If my employees are better health care consumers, they're more productive, they're not spending as much time worrying about medical claims. They're healthier people; they're going to be more productive."

Employers prosper when they look at their benefits as a competitive advantage, says Eilers, and consumer-driven health plans can play a big role in that advantage - if done properly. "If you put them into place and you want to save money then you will save money, because it's strictly cost shifting," she says. "But if you invest and give people the tools to ... understand how to navigate the health care system ... they're gaining intrinsic value. The balances in their HSAs are going up over time. It's a win-win for everyone." Still, Eilers admits, "it's a hard sell and it takes time to get there."

Eilers oversees the big picture for each of her clients, and has a group of health and performance consultants who work specifically on wellness plans. Even so, the health and benefits teams always meet with clients together. Eilers has a client with a wellness program in place that is sharing information with its health insurance carrier to monitor things like hospital stay length and number of ER visits by wellness plan participants versus non-participants. The goal is to give clients a true ROI on the wellness plan - "actual hard dollars," says Eilers. "We're a data-driven society. That's where we are these days, particularly since finance is taking such an active role in understanding what a big spend benefits are. By doing this little thing I think it will make a huge difference. Administratively, it's challenging for our clients to pass that eligibility [to the carrier], but we're really excited. I can't wait to see the outcomes on that."

Eilers has always been very adept on the financial side of the business, says Mike Barone, president of Intercare. "What she has really impressed me with since coming to Intercare is her ability to take that financial acumen and look at a client's strategic priorities and business priorities and weave that into a concise strategy, balancing qualitative and quantitative efforts," he says of Eilers. "She's very, very good at that. She's very good at communicating her ideas and then executing on that. Not a lot of people can do both sides of that ... she's very well rounded and that's what makes her so exceptional."

 

Synergy, synergy, synergy

Always looking for a better way to do things and continually exceed client expectations, Eilers is not one to rest on what she's always done in the past, says Keller. "Jen's been doing this for a long time, and yet she still has indicated that she's learned more in the last year than she had in the last several years."

Teamwork is huge at Intercare, and Eilers lives and breathes it. "She's so dedicated. She works so hard and she's willing to mentor the other folks. She wants us all to succeed," says Keller. "The first thing she said to me [about winning Adviser of the Year] was, 'I got this but I didn't win it on my own.' She's very humble. She's amazing."

Eilers says it's nice to be recognized, but gives much of the credit to the team she works with, particularly the people who work on the ResMed account with her [see sidebar for team members' names]. "I quarterback everything, but it's the team that's fantastic and does such a great job of making all of us look good and making our clients so happy," says Eilers. "Every day I learn something new from one of my colleagues,"

Barone appreciates how inclusive she is. "Sometimes when you have a top performer like this the top performer doesn't do a great job in terms of transferring her knowledge and her skillsets down throughout the organization," he says, "and I feel like she's spent the additional time to bring her team into the fold and to help them learn and grow in their own right. I really appreciate her willingness to do that."

By giving something back to her team members, it rounds out the client's experience as well, Barone adds.

Eilers is continually motivated by the office environment at Intercare. "It is it is so much fun to work here," she says. "From top down, everyone is really passionate and involved in what we do."

For example, the company has an emotional intelligence committee that has all staff members take a test to determine their best communication methods. Those methods are represented by a series of colors that are displayed on a panel outside of each person's office. Intercare also has quarterly events like a St. Patrick's Day leprechaun-themed bowling party that encourage staff unity.

When not uniting with her co-workers, Eilers enjoys time outdoors with her husband and two boys, Quinn, 6, and Vaughn, 3, doing a range of activities such as hiking and water sports.

A big job like Eilers' can't be done alone, says Barone, but there are different ways to have a team work for you. "They're going to work for you regardless, but are they going to spend that extra hour or two in the office when you ask them to? Is it going to be really collaborative? Innovative? How engaged are they? It's all those intangibles and she does a really good job at making her team feel really, really valuable, needed, and that she's willing to spend time to help them grown their career," he says. "She's a good leader."

 

Future outlook

In talking with Eilers, she emits such a sense of confidence and purpose it's easy to forget the industry is in such a time of uncertainty. But health care reform doesn't have her fazed. When it comes to the Affordable Care Act's exchanges, Eilers expects California will have "a robust marketplace," but because her clients are multi-state employers she is looking at the national picture. Clients are evaluating all options, including the private exchange market, but Eilers expects most will keep their own plans.

"When you couple it with a defined contribution approach I think it makes some sense," she says of the exchange system, "but a lot of my employer groups are so into having their data that it's a little bit more challenging with the exchange because I don't think it's necessarily been determined, what kind of data are we going to get back?"

As for the future of the broker, Eilers is optimistic. She points to the majority of studies that say most companies will not be exiting the health insurance space. "So many have embraced that total rewards philosophy, and benefits are an absolutely integral part of that.

"And then for those broker and consultants who really understand the business needs of their clients and who become actual strategic partners - not just vendors any longer, not just, 'I'm going to do some placements here or there,' I think there's so much opportunity for all of us."

Love or hate health care reform, Eilers believes it represents opportunities for brokers to show their true value to clients. "You hear studies that so many employers feel like they're not prepared for it," she says. "Every single one of my clients is prepared for it."

 

 

CLIENT SNAPSHOT

One of Jennifer Eilers' greatest achievements in her first year at Intercare was turning around the benefits experience for new client ResMed. Some of those accomplishments include:

> negotiated $18,000 carrier budget for wellness and/or other plan-related expenses

> negotiated final medical renewal down from 12.8% to 3.3%, with plan enhancements

> increased CDHP enrollment from 9% to 23% in one year

> streamlined long-term disability insurance across locations - saving $58,000

> consolidated life/AD&D with LTD vendor and negotiated increased GI at a lower rate with a three-year rate guarantee - saving $38,000 or 19.2%

> negotiated a 25% reduction to the dental administration fee, saving $14,000

> increased employee participation in health screening and assessment to 90%

 

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

In honor of EBA's 10-year anniversary, we checked in with our previous Adviser of the Year winners.

Name and company:

Greg Golub, Sequoia Benefits & Insurance Services, LLC

Title: CEO

Year won: 2012

Impact: Winning had a very positive impact for our team, our clients and our vendor partners

Changes: Continued to grow significantly organically

 

Name and company:

Darrell L. Phillips, DPI Benefits

Title: President

Year won: 2011

Impact: The award resulted in a tremendous amount of positive recognition among our existing clientele as well as our prospective marketplace. It also helped further enhance our credibility with vendors and service providers seeking to do business with us.

Changes: Since 2011 our business has enjoyed record growth across all lines. We have seen revenue grow over 40%; added two new staff; expanded to new offices; and more!

 

Name and company:

Annette Bechtold, Digital Insurance

Title: Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Reform Initiatives

Year won: 2010

Impact: It was obviously a real honor being named adviser of the year and has certainly given me the opportunity to meet new colleagues in the field who I can continue learning from and sharing important benefits-related information - and in turn help Digital better serve its valuable clients.

Changes: Since winning this award, Digital has nearly doubled its number of employees, acquired several broker agencies throughout the U.S. and added almost 10,000 new businesses/organizations to our customer base. Personally, I was promoted.

 

Name and company:

George Danusis, Integrated Financial Services, Inc.

Title: President

Year Won: 2009

Impact: The next year saw the greatest changes in our business (due to Affordable Care Act) and this created a major issue on how to face the future, which we have still not figured out.

Changes: I now work in Atlanta and up north. We created an alliance with a property casualty agency in the south and are attempting to do more charitable work (our biggest project is helping veterans adjust to civilian life). We recognize the need to be as flexible as possible to meet the changing employee benefits field. This has tied us to staffing companies. After 40 years in the business we've learned to bend like a willow and even at age 65, I am still working with a passion to help companies finding solutions to affordable health and retirement solutions.

 

Name and company:

John Kahle, Intercare Insurance Solutions, a Hub International Company

Title: Senior Vice President, Chief Wellness Officer

Year won: 2008

Impact: It spotlighted our company both locally and national. This was a team award and highlighted our ability to be innovative and deliver great value to our clients. It gave us additional credibility.

Changes: We have continued to expand and are now part of the Hub International Company as of Dec. 31, 2012. We continue to innovate, using the consultative approach to solving our clients' needs. Our Health and Performance (wellness) Team and practice has grown dramatically. We now have 10 full time H&P team members.

 

Name and company:

Dale Alexander, Alexander & Company

Title: President

Year won: 2007

Impact: It gave us a more national recognition of the work our employees do. It was a huge moment for them to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Changes: We are now nationwide. Our firm has expanded to new states and opportunities due to this award. We truly appreciate EBA's spotlighting our company.

 

 

TEAMWORK

"I quarterback everything, but it's the team that's fantastic and does such a great job of making all of us look good and making our clients so happy," says Jennifer Eilers. Those team members include:

> Mike Barone

> Lane Caruso

> Marcello Esteves

> Scott Gardner

> Linda Keller

> Dan Openshaw

> Maggie Osburn

> Kathleen Porter

> Karin Spitzer

> Lindsay Steckler

> Meagan Tyson

> Kimberly Wells

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