Online master’s program schools advisers on benefit strategies

When Robson Baker went in to have surgery on his torn ACL two-and-a-half years ago, he thought he knew what to expect. But despite being an employee benefits and HR adviser at Clarus Benefits Group in Houston, Baker found himself frustrated and had difficulty understanding the bills that were coming in. As an adviser, Baker felt he was supposed to understand everything that was going on.

That’s when it all clicked. Even to experts, like himself, the healthcare system can be complicated and confusing. Baker decided to make it his top priority to expand his knowledge to better educate his clients.

“I’m on a personal mission to help employees lower their costs and improve their outcomes,” he says.

So when he got an email last August from Tom Scott, director of a new online master’s program in health benefit design and health informatics management at the University of Lynchburg, Baker jumped at the chance to learn more about the program, which is specifically designed for advisers, benefit administrators and professionals in the employee benefits and health industries. He called Scott, and soon he was enrolled in the first class of students.

“I’m on a personal mission to help employees lower their costs and improve their outcomes,” says Robson Baker, an employee benefits and HR adviser at Clarus Benefits Group.

The University of Lynchburg, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, launched the one-year virtual program in March, which consists of five-week accelerated online courses covering everything from the healthcare delivery value chain to reference-based pricing. Students can follow two tracks within the program, one emphasizing advisers and one for benefit administrators.

"Healthcare does not have to be expensive, and many people don’t know that," Scott says. "This is a perfect opportunity for higher education. Industry professionals will hear from the best minds in every niche area of value-based healthcare."

Distance learning programs like Lynchburg’s are becoming a more common offering for working professionals. Schools including Stanford University, George Washington University and Texas A&M University all offer some form of online education. There also are mass open online courses offered through websites like edX, which for a fee, allow students to take online classes in topics ranging from corporate finance to music.

While online degree programs are becoming more frequent, the number of students receiving post-secondary degrees through distance learning still remains small. In fall 2016, only 15% of students took exclusively distance courses while 17% took at least one distance course, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. For private nonprofit institutions like the University of Lynchburg, only about 18% of students took exclusively distance courses.

So far, Scott says the master’s program has about nine students, who log on from locations ranging from Houston to Boston, enrolled from a variety of backgrounds — most are benefit advisers, but others work in pharmaceuticals and hospital systems. The goal is to teach professionals how they can take actionable steps to lower the cost of healthcare for employers, he says.

The students use a version of Zoom, the video conferencing service, to connect on Tuesday evenings for class and they complete assignments using online course management tool Moodle, Scott says. Throughout the semester, students will complete assignments related to their work with employers. For example, one project is to design a benefit plan for an employer.

“We want them to apply it directly to their job,” Scott says.

The University of Lynchburg claims that its master of benefit design program is the first of its kind in the nation. The degree runs students about $685 per semester hour, which is comparable to the cost of Lynchburg’s master of business administration program.

But there are other master’s programs that delve into different aspects of healthcare. For instance, the University of Arizona offers an online master’s program in health innovation. Other colleges and universities across the country offer master’s degrees in healthcare administration, management and policy. It is unclear if these programs have tracks that focus specifically on healthcare as a benefit for employees.

Benefit advisers also can receive various certifications. For example, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans offers a certified employee benefits specialist designation with curriculums developed by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Dalhousie University.

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The Health Rosetta also certifies advisers by educating them on topics ranging from value-based primary care to health transparency. Lynchburg tapped several Health Rosetta team members and advisers to teach and guest lecture for the program. Two of these advisers include Al Lewis, CEO of healthcare education company Quizzify, and David Contorno, founder of North Carolina-based benefit consulting firm E Powered Benefits. They are among a list of more than 16 executives who will be teaching — including Dave Chase, CEO and founder of the Health Rosetta, and Tom Emerick, former head of benefits for Walmart, BP and Burger King, and current president and co-founder of Edison Healthcare.

Contorno, who helped develop the Lynchburg degree program, says he hopes students will start to consider non-traditional solutions for lowering the cost of healthcare. Those can include direct contracting with doctors and hospitals, direct primary care and independent third party administrators, he says.

“All we do is keep serving up options in this traditional solution set that [results in] worse benefits,” Contorno says. “I don’t know how we’re not past the breaking point.”

“This is a marriage of benefits administration and critical thinking,” says Al Lewis, CEO of Quizzify.

Lewis, whose primary focus is wellness benefits, says he wants students to get a better sense of how to measure the outcomes of employee population health programs. While a program may sound useful, without proper analysis, it’s hard to tell if it will actually save the company money or improve the health of workers.

“This is a marriage of benefits administration and critical thinking,” Lewis says.

Josh Luke, a former hospital CEO and healthcare affordability expert, told Employee Benefit Adviser he sees value in a program like Lynchburg’s. As healthcare gets more expensive for employees and their families, brokers should start thinking about ways to save clients money. That also can include examining the tools brokers are using and how they are compensated, he says.

“Brokers need to have some best practice education on how to approach client and fee schedules,” he says.

Luke, who also is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, says as with many new programs, Lynchburg’s may take time to gain traction. But schools could consider offering tracks that address health and benefit design, he adds.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for different business schools to have a track on benefits,” he says.

Cristy Gupton, founder and president of North Carolina-based Custom Benefits Solutions and a student in the master’s program, says most brokers have gotten their training from big insurance carriers. This often means that education is segmented because carriers have different product lines, she adds.

“Learning how to tackle these problems from the academic world, I think that’s just a better way,” she says.

For Baker, the master’s program is about more than just the degree. He hopes it will allow him to grow as an adviser and help address some of the most pertinent healthcare issues impacting his clients.

“It’s an education used and applied to make change now,” he says. “If you don’t get people excited about these changes, you’ll never get to change the world.”

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