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Dianne L. Howard credits eye-opening experiences for success as benefits manager


Dianne L. Howard's success in employee benefits has been shaped by what she describes as eye-opening experiences early in her career.

Ms. Howard, 58, director of risk and benefits management at the West Palm Beach, Florida-based School District of Palm Beach County, grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she graduated in 1978 with a degree in management and finance.

In her senior year, she interviewed with Travelers Cos. Inc. for a management-trainee position in Miami. “I just wanted to be in management,” she recalled.

In fact, the job Travelers offered Ms. Howard involved adjusting commercial and personal automobile insurance claims. While working at Travelers, Ms. Howard attended Florida International University in Miami, where in 1984 she earned a master's degree in health care administration.

After a while, Ms. Howard asked Travelers if she could add general liability to her claims adjusting responsibilities. “I wanted to learn,” Ms. Howard said.

Conversations with one of Travelers' clients, the restaurant chain TGI Friday's Inc., led to the next stage in Ms. Howard's career.

“The people at TGI Friday's said, "You have to get into risk management. That is where you can move up. It will be more rewarding financially, and you'll be able to do more things, and it will be more exciting,' “ Ms. Howard recalled.

With that conversation as a trigger and thinking that it was time for a change after seven years with Travelers, Ms. Howard set her sights on getting a job in risk management.

In 1985, she applied for and was offered a position as risk manager for the city of North Miami. A key reason North Miami offered her the job: “They liked that I could handle claims,” Ms. Howard said, an important qualification, as city claims were adjusted internally.

While in North Miami, she gained new insights into the hardball tactics deployed in some cases by commercial insurers. A few months after working for North Miami, the city's property/casualty insurer said it was going to boost the premium on a current three-year policy contract.

Ms. Howard recalled explaining to the insurer that the premium was set for three years. The insurer didn't budge. “They said they would cancel the policy if the city didn't pay the additional premium,” Ms. Howard said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

In all, Ms. Howard said, her time in North Miami had both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, she felt she lacked sufficient authority to make decisions. “You couldn't close a file without the city manager's approval,” she recalled. “I found it a bit restrictive.”

Still, she acknowledged that she learned a lot in her two years there.

In 1987, she accepted the position of risk manager for the city of Boca Raton, Florida, where for the first time she got heavily involved in employee benefits issues.

Soon after moving to Boca Raton, Ms. Howard had her first big win.

“I remember talking to and negotiating with the city's health insurer trying to get a premium discount. I spent five minutes on the phone and saved $250,000,” Ms. Howard said. That success demonstrated the effect she could have.

Her time in Boca Raton coincided with the rise of preferred provider organizations. She quickly saw a basic problem with early PPO design: the huge financial incentives some employers, like Baton Raton, gave employees to use doctors and health care facilities participating in the PPO.

“Back then, you didn't even have to pay a copayment for using doctors in the PPO. People liked it,” but the lack of participant cost-sharing led to overuse of medical services, she said.

After seven years in Boca Raton, Ms. Howard was again ready for a change.

“I wanted to move up. I reported to the director of finance, and didn't think I would be going anywhere there,” she said.

In 1995, Ms. Howard accepted the position as director of risk and benefits management for the School District of Palm Beach County.

“I knew there were things I could get done here,” Ms. Howard said.

And she did. Aided by her experience in Boca Raton — and facing tight deadlines — she implemented a Section 125 plan soon after joining the school district, allowing employees to pay for uncovered health care expenses through pretax contributions to flexible spending accounts, as well as using pretax dollars to pay their share of group health care premiums.

The next problem she tackled was removing from the school district's health care plans about 1,000 enrollees who were still covered even though they no longer worked for the school district.

“There were basic things we needed to fix. We started chipping away at the problems. It was very exciting,” she recalled of her early years with the school district.

That enthusiasm remains just as strong 19 years later. “If you work for government, you really can make a difference,” she said.

And Ms. Howard never let a childhood accident interfere with her drive to succeed. When she was 14 years old, she dove into her middle school's swimming pool, hitting her head on the bottom. The accident left her a partial quadriplegic, with some paralysis in her arms and legs.

While the accident resulted in Ms. Howard having to use a wheelchair, “I always can figure out a way to get something done — maybe not the way everyone else does it, but some way — so I guess that transfers to my job. I don't want my disability to define me,” she said.

“Yes I use a wheelchair, but that is just a part of me. My goal has always been to live as normally as possible and experience as much as possible,” she said.

Indeed, Ms. Howard says, “I've gotten on a jet ski,” but concedes that she hasn't yet tried skydiving.

Off the job, she enjoys reading, cooking, baking and swimming. “I also enjoy games like Scrabble and canasta. I'm pretty competitive,” she said.

Ms. Howard's husband, Brian, retired in 2011 after a 33-year career in program management with IBM Corp. He now works as a substitute school teacher with the Palm Beach County school district.

The Howards have four children, including Kevin, 28, an aviator with the U.S. Navy in Jacksonville, Florida, and 24-year-old triplets: Travis, a third-year student at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington; Danielle, a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Navy in Jacksonville; and Dominique, a concierge working out of her home in Jacksonville for The Breakers Hotel.