Adviser's medical crisis sparks new ideas for better healthcare

When Jennifer Kelley’s husband Jay severely fractured his ankle in a motorcycle accident in 2013, her first call was to Casey Armstrong, a benefit adviser and president of Armstrong Fairway Insurance Agency.

Kelley is the president of Kelley’s Underground Construction, a 28-employee company based in Apple Valley, California. She has worked with Armstrong both personally and professionally for about 15 years.

Kelley remembers backing out of her driveway to head to the hospital and calling Armstrong on speed dial. At the time, Kelley and her family did not have health insurance — she says rocketing costs after the Affordable Care Act went into effect led them to cancel their coverage (it was not mandated given the small size of her company). So when Kelley received the emergency call, she knew they were in trouble.

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“I was like, you need to get me insurance now,” she recalls telling Armstrong on the phone.

Armstrong got the couple an HMO plan that took effect the following month and was able to refer them to an orthopedic trauma surgeon at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. The surgeon would later operate on Jay's pilon break, a severe fracture that can drive the foot bone into the shin. If not for the insurance that Armstrong was able to put in place, the Kelleys’ medical bills from years of treatment would have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“She’s just more personal,” Kelley says of Armstrong. “She’s been through the struggle and understands what we’re all going through in life. She doesn’t just sit behind her keyboard.”

Armstrong, 41, has been a benefit consultant for nearly 22 years and is one of Employee Benefit Adviser’s 2019 Top Women in Benefit Advising. But it wasn’t too long ago that she was struggling to navigate the healthcare system herself. When Armstrong was 21, she suffered a stroke in her Apple Valley, California, apartment. This left her with limited mobility on the right side of her body.

The stroke was initially misdiagnosed as encephalitis and then multiple sclerosis. Armstrong quickly became frustrated with how difficult the healthcare system was to navigate as she jumped from doctor to doctor.

“[I was] really confused at that point,” she says. “I was still so young and I was just angry at the world.”

Armstrong was eager to be back at work almost from the moment she entered the hospital — armed with a new passion for helping people navigate the health insurance marketplace.

“Every time I hear of someone having a stroke, I tell their caregivers, ‘I know it’s a struggle and it’s hard to even fathom getting better at this point, but you have to force yourself to get up and put your all into physical therapy and speech therapy because those things are so important,' " she says.

After a two-year recovery, Armstrong emerged as an advocate for client healthcare issues. She is now the owner of Armstrong Fairway, where she manages 10 employees and brings in $8.7 million in benefits business per year.

Seeing the complexities of the healthcare industry from the eyes of a patient also galvanized Armstrong politically. She feels strongly about achieving greater transparency in healthcare and ending surprise billings. While recommending insurance and being an advocate for clients is important, change needs to come from the top, she says.

“I’d like to be more involved in the political side of things,” Armstrong says. “When [leaders] make changes with the swipe of their pen, it’s detrimental to a lot of folks.”

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EBA’s Top Women in Benefit Advising

Some advisers, like Armstrong, have been vocal about the need for more transparency in the space. Armstrong travels once a year to Washington, D.C., to speak with representatives about the issues she sees in Apple Valley. She has tapped elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-California; Republican State Sen. Scott Wilk and State Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, also a Republican, to bring attention to healthcare issues that will impact her clients.

“I do think we have a lot of work to do in the political side of things to help them understand how difficult it is to change insurance as a whole,” she says.

There is also a need for more healthcare education, she says. Offerings like low-cost, self-insured plans that are non-ACA compliant can confuse workers into selecting an inadequate amount of coverage. The average citizen may not know enough about health insurance to make an informed decision and “a lot of people are just like, ‘Well, it’s cheaper; I’m doing it,’ ” she says.

Making her mark on the industry

When Nancy Rodriguez, who has worked in the benefits space for more than a decade, found herself being passed over by less senior male employees for job opportunities in the industry, she knew it was time for a change.

She eventually made her way to Armstrong Fairway, where she has worked for three years, most recently as a benefits account executive. Rodriguez’s own experience in the industry drove her to seek a role at Armstrong’s firm because she wanted to work for an experienced and savvy businesswoman. Most benefit advisers are men and in her previous roles, several of the clients preferred to work with men — impacting her career aspirations, Rodriguez says.

“I was so excited about a woman boss; I thought maybe this will be good for me,” she says.

She found a mentor in Armstrong and the two developed a strong bond. Armstrong herself has struggled with bias in the workplace, and she understood where Rodriguez was coming from. In the past, she has faced discrimination because she was a woman.

“I have come across unconscious bias” she says. “Some people flat out [say] ‘I think a male would be better doing this.’ ”

Armstrong says she has had to work harder at times to win clients, because of her youth, gender and previous health issues. In some instances, clients were hesitant to do business with her based on those factors — one client even went so far as to question her backup plan in the event of another stroke.

“I can’t overcome being a woman, I can’t overcome being young. I couldn’t overcome the things he wanted me to overcome,” she says. “All of those things that I had going against me, just really drove my spirit.”

That spirit was part of Armstrong from a young age, her father, John Armstrong, says. She became fascinated by the benefits business after seeing him work in the industry. When she was about 8, she started to pay regular visits to her father’s office, answering phones and taking notes in client meetings.

“She was a natural,” he says. “Customers would come into the office and she’d be there and interact. She’d ask if they would like water. She was so proud to be part of the organization then, and I was so happy to have her with me.”

Armstrong remains close with her father. She learned from a young age to be a more consultative seller, using a holistic approach to attend to a variety of client needs — even if it doesn’t bring her additional income.

“One thing about health insurance, people don’t pay much attention until they have to use it,” John Armstrong says. “Casey steps right in with families and helps them. That is what separates her from the majority of brokers.”

Working in a tight-knit community like Apple Valley has brought Casey Armstrong close to many of her clients. She develops relationships with local doctors and helps clients navigate their medical needs — something she feels passionately about after her stroke.

She is grateful to her father for helping her through the experience, including dealing with hospitals and insurance issues. Her own knowledge was a contributing factor in her ability to get the help she needed, including extending her physical therapy sessions. Without all of this help, she says, she may not have been able to get the care she needed.

“I could not imagine how it would be for a regular person trying to navigate this on their own,” she says. “I would have given up at the first hurdle.”

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