How to become a benefits guru

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The role of the broker has expanded from seller to quintessential guru of all things benefits. To achieve this critical standing with clients, an adviser must be well versed in not just products, but also politics, HR management, wellness and regulatory standards, to name a few.

For principals at Keller Benefit Services Lynne Pettey and Trudie Doudna in Washington, D.C., having that knowledge and expertise remains a top priority in order to offer solid counsel to their clients.

In a conversation with EBA, Pettey and Doudna reveal their uncertainty about the American Health Care Act and how it could have long-term effects on both the individual and group markets. What follows is an edited version of the discussion.

EBA: What is your biggest struggle in benefits right now?

Trudie Doudna: For brokers, it’s remaining committed to the core challenge of our work, which is helping employers offer meaningful benefits at affordable cost and balancing that with an ever-changing legislative environment. You have to be up to date on both components to adequately service your clients.

EBA: What can be done better to ensure clients are receiving all of the help they need from their broker?

Doudna: We are definitely seeing a trend of greater interest, among our clients, with financial wellness. It’s not just about your standard benefits, such as health dental, vision, life and disability. It encompasses emotional, physical and financial wellbeing of the employee.

Though, as a broker, you certainly have to be versed in all types of things from leave laws to voluntary benefits to financial components. Really, you need to have a broad breadth of knowledge.

Lynne Pettey: That is what today’s client is expecting from their broker, not just setting up a medical plan and pricing. It’s like what Trudie said, everything that affects your work/life balance.

Doudna: Brokers are looked at to provide technology solutions, provide sufficient support tools, video to help employees understand their benefit offerings in a simple and easy way, so certainly our role has expanded. We’ve had to keep up with the technology, the legislation, cost components, plan changes — the gambit.

Pettey: More and more HR consulting wrapped into that as well. In the old days, benefit brokers didn’t really touch on HR issues, and now we are getting more and more involved, between all the paid family leave laws and the regular unpaid FMLA laws that are in effect now.

EBA: Is there more focus on wellness and voluntary benefits today than the traditional benefits?

Doudna: If more high-deductible health plans are implemented with health saving accounts, then out-of-pocket cost is switching to the employee. With that, voluntary benefits become more important. I think, as the workforce becomes more diverse, voluntary benefits can help an employer meet gaps or help meet the different needs of that workforce.

Delaware, Ohio, Texas and other state associations took to Capitol Hill to emphasize the value of tax-favored status for workplace health insurance.
April 30

As it pertains to wellness, a lot of our clients in the 100 to 500 employee bracket, they don’t often have a set budget for wellness, so they rely on their carriers and on us to provide turnkey simple solutions for them to effectively manage and disseminate [benefits] to the employees. It’s a constant process to see if [employers] are engaging [employees] in fun and different ways.

Pettey: I’m seeing a trend in the change of titles. We have a couple clients looking for “director of benefits and wellbeing.” It’s becoming an assumption that if you’re going to manage benefits at our company, you’re also going to be managing a wellness program.

Doudna: I think every employer believes in [wellness], but I think it is difficult for them to administer it, which is why they look to their broker and their outside resources, which goes back to funding.

EBA: Do employers want their broker to handle HR responsibilities because they lack funding to hire people for that position?

Pettey: I think they just need another resource. We might be working with a director of HR or a director or manager of benefits and we are just another resource for them.

Doudna: I think employers don’t always want to have to call the attorney every time an issue comes up. There are a lot of employers who have one or two people across the country [in HR] in different locations and they are dealing with different state laws and interplay.

Benefits is very complicated and I think a lot of times [employers] want to run a complicated situation by their broker potentially before they go to an outside counsel. It’s not that they don’t have the resources in house; it’s just that they want to flesh through a very complicated situation, whether it’s a disability case, a leave situation tied in with the disability situation, which impacts the medical, which may impact employment.

EBA: How do you think politics is affecting benefits?

Pettey: We know Republican leadership want to repeal the ACA. Some version of the American Health Care Act will become law one day, but we don’t know when.

From an employer standpoint, which is what most brokers deal with, it doesn’t affect them except for filling the mandate to offer affordable coverage, which is a pretty big deal. Most of our clients, it doesn’t affect them, because they are going to keep offering healthcare, maybe offer it to less employees, but they are still going to want plans that allow pre-existing conditions and keep kids on the plans until age 26. They’re still going to cover essential health benefits, because they typically did anyway.

If the ACA is repealed those benefit plan provisions could have a dollar limit placed on them. Everybody is waiting to see what they have to do. They’ve spent years implementing the ACA, and now they are trying to figure out if they are not going to have to comply with it anymore. If anything, [employers] are going to have to comply with less.

Doudna: Long term, if the individual market begins to be destabilized or underfunded, we could see cost impacting the employer side. So, it is all related to one another.

Pettey: If a form of the AHCA goes through, with what Republican are proposing, then there are going to be a lot more uninsured and that always affects those who provide the insurance. It will drive up that cost for insurance for employers, which is fairly stable right now.

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