Empowering employees through wide-ranging benefits

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The motto of Stefanie Pigeon’s benefit firm is, “Your best friend in insurance.” Visitors to the Affiliated Associates website will notice a dog-related theme throughout the Essex Junction, Vt.-based brokerage’s website. More than just an homage to Pigeon’s beloved dog Rosco, the motif is meant to reflect Affiliated Associates’ commitment to helping clients take control of their benefits and healthcare in all aspects of life.

“Don't let the tail wag the dog in the world of planning,” says Pigeon, owner and president. “Whether it's your group benefits or your individualized planning, take control.”

Pigeon integrates her background working in the individual market, where she started in 1995, into her group business, cross-selling clients, group, voluntary and individual market benefits. Such a business plan is not typical for most Vermont agencies, where firms will often specialize in one area, Pigeon adds. But for Affiliated Associates, it means being able to serve clients in a range of ways, from bringing them robust group plans, to providing access to voluntary benefits they may not qualify for individually, to ensuring people are on steady footing as they transition to retirement and Medicare.

Whether it’s through small-business owners who have enhanced benefit needs as executives, employee referrals, or voluntary benefit conversations that develop into a deeper need for more coverage, the occasions for cross-selling are numerous. Groups in the Vermont market are often smaller than average as well, and they require robust, in-person benefit conversations and enrollments that are more likely to uncover individual needs, Pigeon adds. Her clients are typically 15 to 25 lives, although some groups do go as large as 600.

“The bulk of our business is done face to face,” she says.

Pigeon makes it a practice to work with like-minded employers who understand the importance of employee benefit education and will provide her and her team adequate time for in-person meetings.

“Being respectful of the employer's needs and desires, but really making sure we're given at least that group educational opportunity has been critical,” Pigeon says. “It's helped drive enrollment because there's an opportunity for questions and answers and understanding about our products.”

Amanda Combs, controller at Richford Health Center, Inc., in Richford, Vt., has known and worked with Pigeon through two different jobs in the last 15 years. She brought Affiliated Associates with her when she switched employers about eight years ago, because she didn’t want to lose her relationship with Pigeon and Affiliated Associates’ wide range of benefits.

“They offer so many different things. It’s not just group. It’s individual needs as well,” says Combs. “We’ve had people who have had medical issues and … they’ve been able to bypass some of those physicals and get coverage as a group that they couldn’t otherwise get by themselves.”

Vermont environment
In addition to its smaller group sizes, another unique, if not somewhat destabilizing, aspect of working in the Vermont market is the “constant push” for a single-payer system, Pigeon says. The state acted swiftly during Affordable Care Act implementation to end commissions in 2014. Knowing the move was coming, Pigeon transitioned her business to a fee structure. “We knew that in order to continue to have revenue coming from the medical side, we really needed to stay on as counselors or consultants,” she says.

Another element that helped Pigeon and Affiliated Associates stay afloat in the transition is the third-party administration firm she started back in 2008. Initially solely used as an internal tool to combat the frustration she felt with a lack of service from outside TPAs, Healthy Dollars, Inc. expanded to service other advisers and their clients around the time of the Vermont commission changes in 2014.

“Cross selling and being really diversified in the other areas I think was definitely our saving grace,” Pigeon says.

Emily Allaire has worked for Pigeon for eight years and manages the Healthy Dollars business. She appreciates the culture of mutual respect Pigeon has built up among her staff and Pigeon’s drive to provide the best service to clients.

“She doesn’t want to sell them whatever makes her the most money. She wants to sell them the best thing for them,” says Allaire. “She understands that if they get what they need they’re going to be customers for life. She’s built her business on that mantra of doing the right thing and she really passes that down to everybody.”

Combs agrees, emphasizing Pigeon’s friendly nature, responsiveness and genuine desire to educate her 150 employees on benefits. “She’s down to Earth. She’s approachable,” says Combs. “I feel that I can go to her with anything and she’s great about getting back to us and meet our needs.”

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