Willy Loman is gone, and Sharla St. Rose wants to fill his place. As director of voluntary benefits at New York City-based NFP Corporate Services, St. Rose is passionate about what voluntary benefits can do to ease the financial burden of employees who are not privy to C-suite-level life insurance.

“This whole idea of those Gerber Baby plans, they do so well because for a lot of people there’s a comfort in knowing that when you pass, you’ll leave something for your family members,” she says. “You don’t have these Willy Loman types anymore. You barely have door-to-door life insurance salespeople, and when you do, they’re not looking to take care of the [low income, often minority] population. So a lot of employees just don’t have these coverages.”

Picked by EBA’s editors to be the 2014 Voluntary Adviser of the Year following an online nomination process, St. Rose sees it as her responsibility to give employees a place to turn for income protection.

“In a lot of cases, if your employers don’t say, ‘Hey, you should have life insurance, whole life, or you should have accident,’ they’re not going to do it. And so that’s who we are. We’re the modern-day Willy Lomans. We go out there, and we sit with this population who’s underserved, and we tell them what’s available,” she says.

“That’s my driving force: How do we bring this insurance option to these employees who, for one, have major gaps in coverage; and, two, they don’t have the financial savings to take care of themselves if there was something catastrophic.”

While some may think “catastrophic” means a cancer diagnosis or worse, for others it’s a trip to the emergency room with a $500 deductible, explains St. Rose, who works with all of NFP’s corporate services market clients in the northeast — more than 50 companies.

When credit card giant MasterCard was looking to start offering voluntary critical illness and accident policies to its employees, the company opted to partner with NFP “because of Sharla,” says Ericka Evans, benefits leader, global benefits at MasterCard Worldwide.

“I could tell that she was very knowledgeable, very proactive during the whole process,” Evans adds. “She was always responsive, proactive and energetic and she valued the company that she worked for and the products and services that they offered. That was one of the things that I felt really made the whole implementation a success.”

Content expert

Before joining NFP, St. Rose worked as a consultant at Mercer for a couple of years. She draws on that experience to explain the nuances of voluntary to clients like MasterCard in the same language they’re used to hearing in a group benefits discussion.

St. Rose will present the client with all of the carriers she approached about a voluntary offering, detail their most popular benefits, how they differ and how an employer can customize their plan.

“For me, that’s what differentiates me in some ways in that I treat VB in the same way I would treat a core plan,” she says. “I think for MasterCard that was what really spoke to them, that we weren’t just saying, ‘Hey, go with this carrier because we think they’re great.’ … I think it gave them the confidence that we knew what we were talking about and we weren’t just trying to sell them on something.”

The whole point is to make it easy for them, St. Rose says. “Because we all know HR folks have so much to do. Anything else on their plate, it’s additional work; and you want it to be a very easy, streamlined, neat process.”

Indeed, Evans plans to continue the partnership with St. Rose, as the company rolls out a pet insurance offering next, “because employees keep asking about it,” she says.

Employer eye-opener

Employee inquiries are the ultimate eye-opener for employers on the value of voluntary, St. Rose says.

One large client recently had a new benefits manager come in who “was not pro-voluntary benefits,” and would likely have scratched the program entirely if she could, St. Rose recalls.

That client decided to switch voluntary carriers that year and in the process the first month of billing had problems that led to bills not being paid. St. Rose naturally thought the glitch would spell disaster for the voluntary offerings. Instead, the employer started getting calls from employees whose claims weren’t being paid.

“So what it showed that benefits manager was that the employees used the benefit and they value it. … She never would have known exactly how many employees utilized the benefit,” says St. Rose. “When things work like they’re supposed to work, you don’t really think about it.”

Such instances represent why St. Rose got into the business in the first place. Introduced to the world of benefits during a high school summer job in the HR department at Chase Manhattan Bank, St. Rose decided to go into HR after graduating college, despite earning her degree in psychology.

After a stint at an IT firm, she left the corporate world to earn her master’s in education and give back to the community by teaching in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where she grew up. Three years later, she was called back to the corporate world working at a benefits call center.

There for a year and a half, St. Rose experienced firsthand the problems people were having with benefit implementation when they were not set up properly on the front end.

“I realized, oh, there’s this whole consultant space out there … that works with employers to find benefits for their clients and also to set these policies up properly,” St. Rose recalls. “That’s how I got into consulting. I was trying to figure out, how can I stop these issues from happening?”

More than a consultant

MasterCard’s Evans was drawn to St. Rose precisely because she did not come off as a consultant. Evans recommends other brokers looking to start offering voluntary benefits take the same approach.

“They have to know what it means to be a partner and to have a partnership, because I didn’t feel like she was a consultant,” Evans says of St. Rose. “I felt like she was a MasterCard employee; she was one of our partners.”

Anyone entering the voluntary business has to know their stuff, Evans adds.

“It’s also very important to make sure that you’re knowledgeable about the product that you’re trying to sell. Because sometimes what happens is you have people come here and they’re not as knowledgeable and they always have to rely on someone else,” she says.

St. Rose, on the other hand, “most of the time when we went to her she was able to answer the question,” Evans says. “Every once in a while she’d have to go to another team member, but most of the time she was able to come back with the answer.”

And don’t expect voluntary to be going away any time soon.

Why group brokers should care

The concept of defined contribution benefits is a key component of this post-Affordable Care Act era and the growth of the exchange business overall, says St. Rose’s colleague Mark Rieder, senior vice president of the benefits integration group at NFP.

“When you move to that kind of strategy … you’re now adding a plethora of voluntary benefit options,” he says. “As defined contribution becomes more popular I think it’s extremely important that we have a knowledgebase of the products and the vendors.”

St. Rose certainly fits that bill, he says. “She’s great. We’ve worked together a number of years now. She manages helping to build out NFP’s VB practice area. “It’s a tall task that we have in front of us in building out a common national presence for all of our offices … so she’s been a great help in doing that from a product perspective as well as coordinating the logistics and what goes into making an enrollment successful.”

He adds, “She’s very professional. There’s something about her demeanor: calming, not over the top, not salesy, just passionate about what she does.”

St. Rose has spent a lot of time in the last couple of years talking with attorneys and people in the financial services field about why voluntary benefits would be good for them. For them, she says, it’s all about explaining to HR why employees will benefit from them. “The reality is now we’re all on high-deductible health plans; we all have out-of-pocket amounts that we didn’t once have,” St. Rose says.

For the traditional group broker, “core is definitely the comfort space,” she says. “However, employers are hearing more about voluntary benefits. For a broker or for a consultant who only deals with core, you’re doing your client a disservice if you’re not doing your due diligence and showing them all the possible options that are out there.”

Also, offering voluntary benefits represents a way to protect yourself, she says.

Otherwise, a group broker is leaving the door open for another consultant to come in and offer their clients voluntary.

“You never know which clients are going to say, ‘Wow, these are amazing benefits, and I didn’t know they existed,’” says St. Rose.

Adding voluntary “shows that they have a wide scope of what’s available in the marketplace. And everyone’s talking about voluntary benefits right now,” she adds.

“The reason why so many insurance companies now have voluntary benefits divisions is it’s obviously where the revenue is going to shift. That’s where the marketplace is going. Firms … need to get comfortable with it. It’s not going anywhere.” 

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