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Brokers slowly adapting to the more holistic needs of their employer clients

Posted On: Jun. 7, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Brokers slowly adapting to the more holistic needs of their employer clients

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Health benefits brokers and consultants say the industry is slowly adapting to the changing needs of employer clients.

As employers focus on achieving a deeper integration of their employee benefit programs into their organizations' broader operations, benefits brokers and consultants say they are under mounting pressure to provide products and services that take a more holistic view of clients' business, including workers compensation and disability claims, employee productivity and workplace safety.

“We have to dramatically reorganize and retrain ourselves,” said Anne Presson, vice president and director of benefits innovation at Woodruff Sawyer & Co. in San Francisco. “We need to talk about the whole of the client's business and get to those broader levels within their organization. It's absolutely imperative, but the question is still open as to how we get there, and we need to get there pretty quickly” to maintain their market share.

“The hard part is that no company ever wants to be the first one out of the gate” to radically alter its services, she said.

Predictably, the biggest cause of the shift in employers' priorities on the design and administration of their health benefit programs — including greater focus on well-designed workplace wellness programs, onsite or near-site health clinics and other cost-containment strategies — has been the federal health care reform act, brokers and consultants said during interviews last month at the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers' 2015 Employee Benefits Leadership Forum in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“A benefits broker that stays in that traditional (insurance placement) role probably has a very short future,” said James O'Connor, president of employee benefits services at CBIZ Inc. in Little Silver, New Jersey. “Those of us that see the need to aggressively move toward merging that role with the roles of technology administrator, compliance and regulatory adviser, wellness program design and administrative service provider, those are the companies that are likely going to fare better as we go forward.”

Another trend that many brokers and consultants said has driven the need for a more comprehensive, advisory approach is that many senior executives, risk managers and operational leaders are involved in benefits-related discussions.

“We've been seeing that for some time, actually, especially when it comes to the finance department,” said Scott Rabin, a principal at Buck Consultants at Xerox in Los Angeles. “In many ways, that's really attractive to us. You'd rather have all the decision-makers in the room if you're doing your job right on the consulting and brokering side, because our responsibility is to help that benefits manager understand the broader picture and impact they can have in contributing value to their own organization by looking at benefits more holistically.”

In response, some brokers and consultants have dramatically altered their workforces.

“Looking at what our staff looks like today versus what it looked like two or three years ago, and where we've invested in additional resources, you can start to see evidence of some of these changes,” said Michael Mascolo, national employee benefits practice leader of the North region at Wells Fargo Insurance Services USA Inc. in Madison, New Jersey.

Mr. Mascolo said Wells Fargo has been particularly aggressive in its pursuit of additional actuarial, clinical, legal and technological experts. “If you think about the role of the traditional benefits broker, none of this stuff was really on the list of services provided,” Mr. Mascolo said. “But these are the areas where our clients are telling us they have the greatest need, and it's forced us to staff up in those areas.”