News 1/4/2022

BenefitsPro: How Brokers Can Support Employers in Helping Employees Navigate the Evolving Benefits Landscape

The role of the insurance broker is continually evolving in response to rising health care costs and consumer needs and expectations. Employers increasingly lean on brokers to not only fulfill transactions, but also serve as strategic consultants, counseling them on ways to attract and retain employees with best-in-class benefits. In fact, around 60% of mid and large-size employers believe they will be more reliant on their brokers and related advisors in the next five years as the benefits landscape becomes more complex.

The need for strategic health benefits counselors has never been greater, as COVID-19 continues to cause fundamental shifts in what coverage is needed, where care is obtained, and how benefits information is communicated. As the demand for new solutions increases, new products enter the market, and employees struggle to fill gaps in their health and financial safety nets, brokers have a critical role to play in helping employers make sense of the ever-changing benefits landscape and consumers to understand their options for coverage and care.

Making sense of new health care needs and options

According to DirectPath’s 2021 Benefits Broker Report, 83% of brokers are being tasked with helping clients contain health care costs. The same report found that 71% of brokers have clients who are struggling with employee satisfaction with their benefits plans, likely because these employees don’t understand the benefits available to them and/or how to put them to good use. For instance, while employees see premiums, copays, and out-of-pocket costs rising, few understand how their actions affect those costs or what programs their employer offers to help employees plan for and mitigate them. Even before COVID-19 hit, employees were feeling vulnerable; now, amid the Great Resignation, employers risk losing their talent to competitors if they fail to provide—and effectively communicate—benefits options that make employees feel protected both medically and financially.

Employers, of course, are faced with balancing what employees want and need, what they must offer to compete for top talent, and what they can afford. Once plans and programs are in place, employers need to protect their investment by educating employees on how to choose and use their plans. For self-insured employers, costs are largely driven by premiums, stop-loss coverage, coinsurance, and out-of-network care–in short, as plan sponsors, employers pay when employees overspend on coverage they don’t really need. The challenge here is that few employers have the resources for personal conversations with every employee as they select their plans or look for care. Likewise, employees aren’t always comfortable having these conversations with their employers. That’s where brokers step in.

To start, brokers can help employers assess available benefits offerings and products currently on, or coming to, the market. To maximize the value employees derive from these resources, brokers can help their employer clients devise and implement a year-round (i.e., beyond open enrollment) communications strategy that educates employees on the basics of insurance and actively promotes available plans and programs. This ongoing education also sets the stage for employers to distribute timely tools and resources as the health care landscape changes (e.g., employees will be better prepared to use resources designed to unpack the impending transparency regulations).

From there, brokers can advise employees on how to create the most appropriate packages for their unique needs. Of course, selecting the right coverage is only half the battle; misuse of plans can also contribute to steep medical bills. A concerning 55% of consumers are unaware that they can compare treatment costs before receiving care, and 57% only check if a provider is in-network when they plan to visit a new provider or facility. To avoid oversights like these, many brokers are recommending transparency services to show employees how to “shop” for care and help them understand how treatment costs could vary dramatically even within the same geographic location and/or network. Additionally, advocacy services can answer employee questions about their coverage on the spot, help them find timely, convenient care, and resolve questions about their claims and bills after the fact—relieving a major source of employee stress.

Communicating benefits to drive engagement

Beyond helping employers identify and offer new benefit programs and services to educate and engage employees about their benefits, brokers need to help their clients effectively communicate that these resources are available and drive their use. Seventy percent of surveyed brokers in DirectPath’s 2021 Consumer Report said their clients are highly relying on them for communication materials—but simply offering the resources isn’t enough. For example, only 37% of workers use employer resources to learn how to select and use their health plans, leaving the door open for misinformation and misunderstanding that can result in steep expenses down the line. So how can brokers help employers do things more effectively?

Getting employees to take action—to assess their current situation, look at their current elections, enroll in their benefits, or read about and understand how a new regulation will affect them—requires communications that don’t just inform but change a perception or a behavior. This requires a well thought out and documented plan—capturing who needs to hear what information when throughout the year, and what channels will be used to convey that information.

It’s always been crucial for employers to convey benefits information in a variety of formats (ensuring everyone receives the information they need in the way that makes most sense to them increases the odds they’ll use it), but the pandemic has made an omnichannel approach nonnegotiable. With many workforces now remote or hybrid following the pandemic, traditional means of engaging employees (e.g., in-office posters, onsite meetings, information packets left on desks) are far less effective. To engage workers in this new era, brokers should work with employers to incorporate digital tools such as virtual benefits fairs, dedicated benefit sites, 1:1 virtual meetings or calls with benefits educators, and texts, emails, and social media posts into their mix of resources.

And while some employees may prefer to take the materials and learn on their own time, opportunities to speak one-on-one with benefits experts are invaluable in inspiring employees to act. Many employees won’t be compelled to rethink their benefits if they’re only looking at static resources (e.g., an email or a pamphlet), but a conversation with someone capable of distilling that information down for them and suggesting alternatives just might.

The role of brokers has never been more critical in helping employers design benefits strategies that not only curb costs but also attract and retain top talent. From keeping employees—and, by extension, their employers—from overspending on coverage and care, to educating employees on benefits basics to promoting educational and advocacy resources in an increasingly digital and fragmented work environment, brokers must leverage their expertise and resources to respond to their clients’ ever-changing needs.

Kim Buckey is vice president of client services at DirectPath.

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