Rising Star helps navigate the healthcare system

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Edwige Ligondé has vivid memories of his mother coming home from work and telling stories of patients struggling to understand the healthcare system.

Ligondé’s mother worked as a family nurse practitioner and often told stories of patients who wouldn’t follow doctor’s recommendations because they didn’t understand, or couldn’t afford, health insurance. He always wondered why there wasn’t anyone who could help these individuals navigate the system.

“No one’s helping these people out with their healthcare needs,” says Ligondé, one of Employee Benefit Adviser’s 20 Rising Stars of 2019 who will be recognized at the Workplace Benefits Renaissance conference in Nashville. “They aren’t taking the recommendations of their doctor just because they don’t understand their insurance plan. It was an anomaly to me.”

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Ligondé, 33, would focus his career on helping employees do just that — navigate the confusing world of health insurance. He is now vice president of employee benefits and technology at Nielsen Benefits Group in Westlake Village, California, where his core competency is health insurance. He has generated more than $1 million in new business revenue since he started there in 2017, after starting in the advising industry in 2009.

He still thinks back to the stories he heard from his mother, which have shaped his view that the biggest issue in the group health insurance space is the lack of employee education. Many workers don’t understand basic terms like co-pay or deductible, which can lead to bigger issues when they try to pick their plans, he says.

“I realized this is the type of role where I can actually be impactful, in some of those areas I was talking about with my mom,” he says. “That was my ‘why’ for a long time. What can I do to help educate these people to understand their plans?”

But the path to benefit advising wasn’t always so clear for Ligondé. A child of Haitian immigrants, he watched his father and mother study for bachelor’s and master’s degrees while raising their family, something they pushed Ligondé and his younger sister to emulate.

After graduating from high school, Ligondé received a scholarship to play soccer at the University of California, Los Angeles. While on the team, he learned he was vitamin D deficient, a health issue that caused brittle bones in his legs. To combat this, he had two titanium rods surgically implanted. Doctors recommended he stop playing soccer.

Although he initially struggled with the idea that he wouldn’t be able to play professionally, it was a contact from soccer — and the rods in his legs — that eventually led him to benefit advising.

After graduating from UCLA, Ligondé was working for financial services company Northwestern Mutual. He was considering a switch to medical device sales — an area that had been of interest to him since his surgery.

One night at dinner, a friend from his days playing soccer suggested that if he was interested in medical devices, he should consider taking a job in the group health insurance space. Experience in business-to-business sales is a prerequisite for medical devices, he says. Ligondé’s interest was piqued, and he accepted a role at Montage Insurance Solutions in 2009, where he stayed for eight years.

Ligondé has taken many of the lessons he learned growing up and applied them to his role as a benefit adviser. Today, he spends most of his time looking for innovative ways to educate employees about benefits. He’s brought nutritionists to his client’s offices to teach workers about healthy eating; his latest seminar, titled “Eat Fat Lose Fat,” spotlights healthy fats.

Ligondé also organizes themed benefits fairs — a memorable one was Hawaiian theme, complete with leis and a photo booth. “They want something that’s a little bit different, a little bit more engaging,” he says.

He is also heavily focused on benefits and adviser technology. Cathy Baldwin, an account executive at Nielsen Benefits and a colleague of Ligondé, says he is “obsessed” with tech and is always looking for new ways to develop personalized tools for clients. “He just always tries to find something to make the client feel special, and he genuinely means it and cares,” she says.

Last year, Ligondé launched text message campaigns that send benefit information directly to worker’s cell phones ahead of open enrollment. It can be anything from reminders to enroll in benefits to information on free offerings like telemedicine.

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The next step, he says, is giving control of the campaigns to HR, so they can use it to quickly communicate with employees about anything that might be going on in the office. “I thought it was an additional creative way to communicate with your employees. Text messages have a 98% open rate, whereas emails have a 6% open rate,” he says.

Alyssa Valle, human resources generalist at the visual effects studio FuseFx in Los Angeles, says Ligondé instituted a text message campaign and launched an employee benefits portal for the company last year. He also organized a health fair for the company and brought on new benefits including pet insurance, an employee assistance program and HR management software ADP.

“He really goes the extra mile to give us more bang for our buck,” she adds.

This year, Ligondé says he’s looking to explore incorporating an AI chatbot into the customized employer benefit sites that Nielsen creates for employers. A chatbot, he says, could help employees get answers to their benefits questions more easily.

“I look at artificial intelligence as a way to help leverage communication with everybody,” he says. “I think we can transition a lot of these tools into the healthcare world, to give them another outlet of communication.”

Although Ligondé is continually thinking about ways to make benefits easier with technology, he also values spending time face to face with clients, colleagues say.

Valle remembers a time when he took a red eye flight to New York from Los Angeles, arriving right before a three-hour open enrollment educational session with employees in FuseFX’s New York office. Immediately after the session was over, he rushed to the airport and flew back to Los Angeles, she says.

Ligondé says he tries to visit all of his clients’ offices that have more than 25 employees. If an office is separate from corporate headquarters, he makes sure employees don’t feel left behind with benefits education. As a benefit adviser, it’s important to put oneself in the employees shoes, he adds. “It’s just having empathy,” he says. “If you have it, I think a lot of things can go well for you.”

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