The monumental change - and opportunity - presented by the Affordable Care Act was a recurring theme at this year's Workplace Benefits Summit.

"I don't believe that we've ever seen the potential of a change to how benefits are offered and administered in the United States as significant as what we're witnessing today," said Teresa White, executive vice president and chief operating officer with Aflac Columbus, during her keynote speech. "That's why this year is very crucial for all of us. The decisions that we make now, and the actions that we take in implementing, educating and communicating all of the changes will have a long lasting impact in all of our organizations."

Her sentiments were echoed by others, including Michael L. Millenson, president of Health Quality Advisors LLC, who believes changes brought about by the ACA "threaten" what benefits professionals do.

"Whether that threat turns into opportunity is really based on your knowledge," he said during a separate panel discussion, and emphasized the law is "a professional opportunity to make a difference for your company and for your workers that, literally, has not come along since World War II."

 

Rude awakening

Employers that don't have a plan for helping workers understand what health care reform means for them could be in for a rude awakening, said White.

"If you think that your employees aren't expecting you to assist them, I think you're sorely mistaken, because they're depending on employers to assist them through this process," she said.

Indeed, 75% of employees surveyed by Aflac for its annual Workforces Report agree with the statement: "I believe my employer will educate me about changes to my health care coverage as a result of health care reform."

There are two phases to health care reform, said White: Compliance and implementation. "We are all trying to comply with the law," she said. "However, most employers aren't focused on the second phase and that is actually implementing the changes and teaching the employees about those decisions. Most employers aren't focused on this and really need to be."

To try to better engage employees in their benefits programs, she suggested employers learn from the world of marketing and use the four Ps associated with that industry: the right product at the right price in the right place with the right amount of promotion.

"Historically, the benefits department did all of the analysis and all of the selection," she said. "Now, we are attempting to help the employees understand how to engage in this process."

Sixty-five percent of workers in an Aflac survey said their employer only communicates about benefits at open enrollment or new hire enrollment and "we need to change that," said White.

 

 

 

ACA ARCHITECT: HOW BROKERS SURVIVE

Brokers and advisers are on the right track to exchange success if they take a consultative approach. This is the message from Jonathan Gruber, economics professor at MIT and chief architect of his home state's 2006 health reform that became a blue print for the Affordable Care Act."We can think of brokers and advisers as having two roles, a shopping role and an advising role, and I think their shopping role will diminish and their advising role will go up," he says, echoing his last interview with EBA in March. "I can see brokers going either way, the question is, can they shift more toward the advisory role?"

An October study from industry researcher LIMRA shows that employers want advisers to rise to this occasion, too. In fact, 94% of small business respondents told LIMRA they think their need for an adviser will either stay the same or grow within the next two years. However, only about half of the employers who currently use an adviser said they're "satisfied" with them. The most common reason for eliminating an adviser is cost. "This presents a huge opportunity for advisers who are able to demonstrate their value," says Mary Boyce, associate analyst at LIMRA Insurance Research.

Gruber has a parallel example for brokers. "Brokers and advisers ... can follow the travel agent model - which is a bad one for them - or the tax adviser model," he says. "In both cases, a new electronic technology came up that could have potentially displaced the advisory role, be it Orbitz or Turbo Tax. But tax advisers are used more than ever now, because they figured out how to supplement that and help folks, whereas the travel agent became displaced."

As for the glitches on the exchanges in October, Gruber is not too worried. "The goal should be that by the end of November most people can get on and for most people it works fine," he says. "Right now, very few people have been able to get on. ... A larger issue in thinking about this law is do we hold it to the standards of perfection or do we hold it to the standards of improvement?"

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