A principal with Tropical Risk Management in Tampa, Fla., Kimberly Eckelbarger is an employee benefits expert who earlier in the year developed a greater appreciation of business concepts that have connected her with senior executives.

She’s one of about 30 members of the Agency Growth Mastermind Partnership network of elite group of independent advisers who gather to share best practices and disrupt the industry. The group was co-founded in 2013 by Nelson Griswold and Scott Cantrell at Bottom Line Solutions, a benefit advisory and coaching firm. Although one of only five female members, Eckelbarger lauds the concept for embracing input from all its partners, regardless of gender or age.

AGM partners participate in a collaborative peer-exchange program that includes quarterly summits and an annual conference. Together, they work to solve problems, identify new growth strategies and develop next-generation practices for a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Kimberly Eckelbarger

“All of us that are in it are doing something very well, but we weren’t scaling it and the collaboration is huge,” she says. “If you worked in a big agency house, all you know is the Kool-Aid they gave you. It’s hands-down one of the best things I’ve done for my business.”

Griswold says Eckelbarger “has elevated her practice to the C-Suite in order to have strategic benefits conversations with the executive who owns the profit & loss statement.” He notes that the AGM approach is “helping her take bigger accounts away from bigger brokers.”

One example involves a 160-life group that Gallagher had kept fully insured until she moved the company to a self-funded plan with an unbundled third-party administrator to deploy her own cost-containment solutions.

Griswold further describes her as “intensely curious and always learning. “ He adds, “she knows the importance of investing in oneself to stay ahead of competitors and maintain an advantage. Kim refuses to accept the status quo in her own benefits practice or in healthcare.”

Closing the deal
Eckelbarger recently requested to meet with the CFO of the 58-life company, fully conversant in the language and solutions only a C-level executive would appreciate thanks to her AGM affiliation.

“I walked out of my first meeting with the letter of record,” she recalls. “I didn’t have to write a new plan document or even quote the business. I got the account because I was able to explain to the CFO, in his language, how we can help him take control of the benefit spend and reduce the cost of healthcare.”

Easily landing the gig meant following a money trail to improve earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, known as EBITDA. She also learned the importance and value of developing a financial hedging strategy, extracting dollars from the balance sheet and barely even discussing health insurance per se.

Her secret sauce involves an unbundled, transparent solution of layering in medication management and pre-authorization, as well as sourcing medications domestically or internationally. Other winning elements include negotiating reference-based pricing prior to clients incurring costly hospital procedures — a formula that’s often pegged to a fee of Medicare plus 140%.

Another game-changer involves Section 105 plans, which also frequently take the form of health reimbursement accounts — an arrangement she describes as “self-funding on training wheels.” It required a leap of faith. “I wasn’t even really comfortable selling self-funded plans before this year,” she admits.

Not to be confused with level funding, she describes the 105 approach as a base plan that might include some copays with a high deductible and buy-up plan with a lower deductible that uses a funding card, “We reduce the premium that goes to the carrier,” she explains. “Basically, we’re using the deductible as a stop loss for all practical purposes, and they’re self-insuring a small amount. The stop loss is at a $5,000 limit, she says, rather than at least $25,000 for a real stop-loss contract.”

Eckelbarger has simplified the concept for fully-insured client by explaining that the funding mechanism they chose represents the costliest possible path to offering health insurance.

“There’s not a business owner out there that doesn’t want to pay less for health insurance, and nobody in the Florida market is even talking to them about other solutions,” she says, noting how the advantages of self-insurance are trickling down market to even small employers.

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