Lobbying for public sector benefits

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From a degree in accounting to benefits adviser, Melissa Koontz wasn’t counting on becoming a lobbyist. But that’s what her clients need to fend off legislation that could increase their healthcare costs.

As a senior employee benefits consultant at HUB International, Koontz is fighting a pending bill in the state of Washington that directs the state’s healthcare authority to administer health and other benefits for all state school employees.

If it goes through, the legislation will create one of the largest healthcare groups in the state under the Washington State Health Care Authority. But Koontz says the new law is not what it appears.

“It seems good on the surface by creating a bigger group with more buying power,” she allows. “However, a few of my districts are seeking-opt out provisions, so they are not forced to submit to this state-run program.”

An accountant by training, Koontz began her career as a benefits adviser in 2012 at the VEBA Service Group, which was later acquired by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. As a client manager, she worked with her employer clients to develop benefit plans designed to attract and retain key talent.

Gallagher & Co. is also where Koontz began working in the public sector, conducting renewal analysis for employers with 25 to 1,000 employees.

“I was focused on public sector health reimbursement arrangements directed towards public school district employers,” she recalls.

Recruited by HUB International, Koontz continued to work with public schools. In a little over two years, she build a $450,000 personal book of business and has been recognized by Employer Benefit News’ as a rising star in benefit advising.

At HUB, Koontz spends much of her time lobbying on behalf of her public-school clients. Her most recent project is opposing the passage of EHB 2242's employee benefits provision – also known as Washington state’s School Employees Benefits Board Program—in its current form.

If the bill passes as is, it will establish a board to design, approve and establish eligibility criteria for all school employee benefit plans. All of the state’s school districts will be required to participate in the SEBB program as of January 1st, 2020.

“If state run programs tell us anything,” Koontz says, “it’s that they do not control costs.” EHB 2242 is a politically-driven bill, she says, and not entirely in the public’s best interest. “It is fascinating what you hear as you move around the public-sector landscape,” she adds. “A lot of it revolves around politics.”

An old hand at politics

Politics and confrontation are not new to Koontz. As a public-sector benefits consultant, she spends much of her time acting as a mediator between her public-school clients’ administrative staff and the unions who represent the teachers and support staff.

“I don’t want to say it’s a battle, but it’s a constant collaboration between the administration and the unions,” Koontz laughs. “Their goals are often the same, but when you have two battling groups they don’t always see it that way.”

Unlike private employers, public-sector entities involve a much broader group of participants in the benefits negotiating process, and Koontz has to work with committees that include everyone from finance and human resources directors to gym teachers and custodians.

This breadth of background and experience can make for some awkward negotiating sessions, although Koontz is quick to note that when it comes to discussing benefits it is not necessarily the finance chief or the head of HR who is most educated on the topic.

“There are some benefits committees where the strongest and most influential person is on the custodial staff, or a dedicated employee whose sole responsibility is to find the best benefits offerings,” Koontz says. “It’s a very dynamic environment.”

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