One adviser’s commitment to education drives her passion for helping employers
If someone had told Danielle Capilla, the director of compliance for employee benefits at Alera Group, that there would be a situation more stressful than writing a reference book about the Affordable Care Act, she never would have believed them. But now Capilla finds herself in that position as she seeks to help her clients navigate the uncertain waters of the coronavirus pandemic, which Capilla says is a unique opportunity to highlight the important work of benefit brokers.
“We really bridge that gap between all of the federal and state agencies that are regulating the business of being an employer,” says Capilla, one of Employee Benefit Adviser’s Top Women in Benefit Advising for 2020. “We're their translator, and sometimes we're all learning together — and this was certainly the case [with COVID-19].”
Before the pandemic changed the way brokers work with their clients, Capilla was making a name for herself as an adviser who gets things done. When the National Veterinary Associates, the largest private owner of freestanding veterinary hospitals in the U.S., was having ERISA issues that they weren’t aware of due to the ineffectiveness of their previous broker, Capilla was able to step in and solve the problem, by pinpointing the concerns and addressing them appropriately within the regulatory framework put in place by governing federal agencies.
“Our broker wasn’t sending us any information,” says Eric Smith, general counsel for NVA. “From the government’s perspective we owed this thing forever. Capilla was really helpful in getting us out of that pickle. She's helping us out on something that another broker did. That was something you wouldn’t expect from somebody else.”
Capilla also serves as the federal and state legislative chair for the Downtown Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Health Underwriters — an organization that represents professionals who serve the health insurance needs of employers.
“NAHU plays a critical role in educating brokers across the country (particularly smaller shops with less resources) and most importantly, advocating for brokers, employers, and employees on Capitol Hill,” Capilla says. “In my role on NAHU’s Legislative Council, we work to assist these leaders in understanding the impact of their laws and regulations, and we ensure that brokers voices are heard on the Hill.”
Those who know Capilla say she has a strong ability to solve problems and a commitment to educating employers on how they can enhance their benefits program while controlling costs and remaining fully compliant.
“Government regulations are confusing for many people, but ERISA and ACA compliance is a particular pain point,” she says. “The average business owner doesn’t deal in these regulations, but the repercussions of getting it wrong can lead to catastrophic financial penalties.”
Through strong educational foundations, clients can become more comfortable with the subject matter, and make the right decisions for their business, their benefit plan, and their overall compliance, while reducing their sleepless nights brought on by concerns over audits and regulators. It is through education that Capilla is able to help employers enhance their benefits. As part of that commitment to education, Capilla was an adjunct professor at DePaul University from 2015 to 2019.
“Danielle is a highly competent and dynamic professor,” says former student Hannah Sullivan. “During our first class meeting, I was impressed by Danielle’s ability to digest complicated subject matter and present it in a systematic and engaging way.”
Great teachers are experts on their subjects and are able to communicate that they are invested in their student’s future, which Capilla was able to do effectively, Sullivan says.
“Danielle has both of these qualities,” she says. “Her dedication and skill in her field were evident from her level of preparation and depth during lectures. I can speak from experience that her course — Special Topic in Health Law Compliance: Employee Benefits and Health and Welfare Plans — was not only academically stimulating but also practically valuable.”
But Capilla didn’t begin her career in education or even on the client-facing side of the benefits industry. Graduating from law school at the height of the 2008 recession, there were no jobs to be had for an up and coming attorney who was looking to work as the general counsel for a hospital. She spent some time doing medical malpractice legal work but would eventually be laid off from that position due to the worsening economy.
“I took the first job I could find after that, which was for a global legal publishing company, and got a job on their health law team,” Capilla says. “I was kind of plodding along writing reference books on drug law and Medicare law, when the Affordable Care Act got published. I was part of a team of 10 attorneys who wrote the first reference book on ACA.”
It was a stressful period for Capilla, but one she looks back on comparatively as a simpler time. The pandemic has caused a significant change to the way Capilla does her job, and there has been added pressure on her and her husband, as they have been balancing work with homeschooling their two daughters — all amid the added stress of doing chores such as groceries while trying figure out how to go back to work and address client needs.
“It became abundantly clear that our clients needed help more than they ever needed help before in their lives,” Capilla says. “It was incredible. I think I was working 18 to 20 hour days. At times we were just around the clock, as soon as you start wrapping up things for your clients on the West Coast, clients on the East Coast start getting up.”
Her client’s needs were vast; some had employees who were getting sick, while some were trying to understand what different governor’s orders meant for their businesses. Other healthcare clients were trying to figure out if they had enough PPE to get through the crisis. She and her fellow Alera advisers switched gears and began supporting their clients beyond their benefit needs.
“In our Chicago office we had the managing partners making PPE. We had another office [supplying] clients within the hospitality industry with food surpluses to get their food to soup kitchens. Everything changed, and we spent almost a month doing nothing but hand holding, guiding, and slicing and dicing the legislation as it was coming out.”
In addition to highlighting the strong relationships between advisers and clients, the pandemic has highlighted the need for strong mental health benefits, which Capilla predicts will only grow in popularity.
“Many Americans lack access to mental health care or don’t know where to seek care, Capilla says. “If employers are offering mental health coverage, in person or through teleservices, ensuring employees know how to access them is critical.”
The past few months have been trying for Americans on a physical and emotional level.
“Many are shouldering the responsibilities of working, childcare, home upkeep, and school responsibilities, all from home,” Capilla says. “For those with food insecurities, domestic violence concerns, or those with financial difficulties due to COVID-related downturns, this is an even more impossible burden.”
But it is more than just COVID-19 that has people feeling uneasy. The country has erupted in protests over the killings of several black men and women by police or civilian racists.
“When coupled with the importance and seriousness of racial inequality and the national conversation about racism, employers are in a unique position where they have an opportunity to make a significant difference in the personal lives of their team members,” she says. “Through empathy, flexibility, and honest discourse about all of the above topics employers can gain the trust of their associates and promote healthier, collaborative work environments. Through robust mental health benefits, and easy access to mental health care they can ensure their employees have the tools they need to tackle these unprecedented times.”