News 7/6/2017

BenefitsPro: The Missing Links

Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing mission to highlight industry professionals who are making a difference, we asked some top benefits professionals what they wish they had in their portfolio of products. This is what they had to say. 

Student loan programs

I’ve been keeping my eye on the student loan pay down platforms as a benefit. At a meeting in late 2015 with the head of benefits at one of the largest financial firms in the U.S., it was pointed out to me and my team that one of the most important issues many companies will have to deal with in the coming years is the ability to attract and retain millennials and other recent graduates. The burden of student debt is often their biggest financial concern, ahead of daily expenses, retirement and health care.

 Currently, these pay down contributions are taxed as income, so many are waiting for legislation to pass allowing them on a tax-free basis. That said, tax-free legislation has recently been introduced, cosponsored by 38 Democrats and 29 Republicans, making it a popular bipartisan solution to the student loan debt crisis. While present estimates of employer participation are roughly 4 percent to 5 percent, that is expected to dramatically increase, should such legislation pass.

While many of these platform vendors currently operate on a direct-to-employer model, outside of broker distribution, this is starting to change, and is something we plan to be heavily involved in going forward.

Kevin Kennedy, benefits consultant, TriBen Insurance Solutions, Inc.

Advocacy & transparency services

For years, employers have asked employees and their family members to step up and be true “consumers” of health care: researching cost and quality to get the best prices for the services and supplies they need. Unfortunately, very few individuals even know where to start.

As our workforce becomes more virtual and remote, this will pose even more of a challenge. Road warriors, employees located at non-brick-and-mortar worksites (e.g., on pipelines or construction sites) and employees working overnight shifts have less access to the tools they need to do this type of research on their own—or the ability to do this research during standard business hours.

Advocacy and transparency (A&T) services can help by doing the research and leg work employees don’t know how—or have the time—to do. A&T services can help members find a network doctor that fits their needs; get a good price on prescriptions, equipment or medical services such as tests or even surgeries; coordinate appointments with multiple doctors and make sense of medical bills.

With health care—and health care costs—an increasing source of stress and drain on employee productivity, employers need to provide tools and resources employees can use to gain control of their expenses. A&T services free up employees to focus on getting their work done, and ultimately saves both the employee and the employer money.

Kim Buckey, vice president of client services, DirectPath

Vendor expertise

From an HR perspective, I’m not necessarily missing products, I’m missing the consultative approach to products. Since I work at a small company, when I bring on a partner/vendor, I’d like access to both their product and their expertise. I want to work with someone who knows best practices and understands the HR function.

There are, of course, some companies that do this well. However, it feels like too often, I’m being sold a product/service without a genuine concern for understanding what I need and what problems I’m trying to solve.

Courtney (Griffin) Branson, head of HR, Square Root, Inc.

AI & wellness here to stay

Two general themes come to mind: 1) artificial intelligence, and 2) total workplace wellness.

Artificial intelligence (AI): I picture benefits administration systems as the hub which creates a truly seamless experience for members. Once the benefits are loaded for a new plan year, benefit suggestions are provided based on the employee’s self-disclosed profile, payroll info and other data. 

Imagine the system being able to suggest benefits for employees earning X dollars, with X kids, etc. How about if the loaded benefits connect to the carrier networks, so when an employee asks about finding a cardiologist, the system can offer suggestions based on outcome ratings, network status, etc.?

Consider the level of customized suggestions that could be made to members if employee electronic health records or self-reported medical condition could be included. The possibilities are endless. AI is here to stay. I’m intrigued as to how the capability is ultimately delivered in the health care market.

Total workplace wellness: This is not a passing fad. Work/life balance has become work/life integration. How the employer contributes to this transition without overstressing the workforce will be important. I’d like to see a third-party (unbiased) national health coaching network that offers services to employers.

Something along the lines of a monthly PEPM fee in exchange for periodic employer-offered health coaching seminars. Employees could get discounted hourly fees for individual or small group coaching. With employer support and consistent messaging, employees can be made aware of important lifestyle changes to help improve their overall mental and physical health. ROI wouldn’t be immediate, but longer-term improvements to the mental and physical health of employees certainly bring more than one type of return.

Healthy living

There aren’t currently many avenues from carriers, or most benefit brokers, that make top name brand wellness products available, such as quality vitamins, protein, probiotics and other healthy supplements, or guidance on eating right, such as healthy recipes, tips on grocery shopping and suggestions on how to make healthy choices when eating out.

Many wellness programs I have seen stress increased activity and the use of wearables, but don’t complete the package on healthy eating, which is far more effective than activity alone. Therefore, a value proposition for completing the wellness package by offering supplements and including healthy eating protocols or services would be a good way to develop an additional revenue stream.

Phil Muscarello, producer, Benefit Advisory Group, LLC

Pets & combo policies

I think there are needs for a variety of missing products, depending on the client. Amazingly, I probably get asked for group pet insurance about once a month. I know this is available for some, but not in the smaller group market. As a fur mommy myself, I would love to see this become more readily available. 

For the human market, there is an individual product you can buy on the individual side that group doesn’t have: combo policies. There are life policies that also have long-term care or long-term disability included.

Right now, the only true combo policy is critical illness. It’s not cheap to purchase these products on an individual level, and if we could have something like this on the group side, I think it would be popular.

Jennifer Joye, employee benefits executive, Watson Insurance Agency

Long-term care

Overall, I believe the current suite of products available in the marketplace is pretty solid and very competitive from carrier to carrier. However, our industry, in my opinion, doesn’t promote long-term care insurance nearly enough. Most advisers don’t talk about it much because LTC is extremely expensive, with few carriers in the space and limited options.

But new legislation in 2006 opened the door to new hybrid LTC products that helped reduce the cost while providing needed LTC coverage. Products like these are often available as a payroll deducted enhanced benefit and should be installed in more groups, as they can provide valuable life insurance that is fully portable with no increase in premiums and the often overlooked LTC benefit.

Eric Silverman, principal and owner, Silverman Benefits Group

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