A Silver Lining in Benefits?

Of all the areas of HR that I deal with, I hate benefits the most. There are rarely any
shining, victorious moments in benefits. Occasionally, I save someone money by helping sort out a claims/billing issue … but even those victories are hollow because if the insurance company had it together and weren’t a bunch of money-grubbing, sneaky jackholes who hid behind medical jargon and find every excuse in the book not to pay claims or issue invoice credit in the first place, my help on those types of issues wouldn’t even be necessary.

However, my thoughts on the American Healthcare System are for another day … Right now, I want to talk about benefits administration.

But I can’t really do that without talking about the American Healthcare System so I will keep it brief. Without going too deep, let me just state the obvious: the system sucks. It is ultimately designed to profit off of people’s illness on one hand while managing expenses by not paying for claims using any and every nit-picky reason on the other. I get it. However, there’s just something morally askew about that in my mind and the conspiracy theorist in me doesn’t trust the system’s integrity.

Stuck in the middle of the vicious cycle of the System is the employer, who absolutely gets the short end of the stick in this thing. We pay thousands of dollars each year for coverage our employees will never be happy with, no matter how comprehensive it is! And if we can’t provide major, comprehensive medical
coverage—then we battle the guilt, shame and stigma of being an employer who
somehow doesn’t care about their employees because of it. With the Healthcare
Reform legislation still looming, it looks like employers will be jammed between
an even bigger hard place and rock full of new requirements, fines … and bears!
Oh my!

But again, more on that another time.

A few weeks ago, I got suckered into a meeting with a sales rep wanting our company to add their supplemental benefits to our program. Normally, our genius of a gatekeeper switchboard operator screens those calls out so I don’t have to talk
to anyone. This time, the rep squeezed through because she is the wife of one
of our employees and led the operator to believe she was calling about a
personal coverage issue, not to sell something. I gave her props for being
crafty so I took the meeting. I will not say the name of her company, but let’s
just say they are quite well-known little quackers.

I get the draw of supplemental benefits and their cash benefit to people. Who doesn’t want an insurance company that pays them instead of paying claims?! In fact, I had supplemental benefits at one of my previous employers and found it really useful. But with my views on the insurance industry in general, it would be an
understatement to say I have a healthy skepticism about it. For years, our
company has passed on adding this type of supplemental benefit to our plan for
a number of reasons.

  • First, we weren’t sure of the value of the benefit itself for our employee population. Does a twenty year old machine operator really need a cancer policy? Does a thirty year old single woman really need an accident policy? At $12 per check per policy when that person is only making $8, $10 or $15 per hour, it would be hard to recommend it when there is no guarantee or even a significant likelihood they will actually utilize the benefit. When we’re already battling the guilt and stigma of allegedly peddling crappy, useless benefits to our employees, it is natural and reasonable for us to have pause about adding something new that we’re not sure is going to be truly useful to them.
  • Second, the enrollment and administration for the benefit would be a nightmare. Many of these supplemental benefit companies don’t offer a central point of contact or method of enrolling employees. In a high volume production facility, there isn’t always time or space to post a rep to sign people up. Same goes for retail environments. Customers do not want or need to know what goes on behind “the curtain.” So the alternative is to ask employees to come early or stay later. But asking employees to come in before or stay after hours when they are already working long hours on back-to-back days is unfair. Not to mention the question of if and how people are compensated for this. And then there considerations for the safety of the benefits rep in the employer’s work environment … Ugh.

So suffice it to say, I was not enthusiastic about my meeting at all. I was confident that I would chat with the rep for ten or fifteen minutes at most, hit her with the
questions about enrollment and central point of contact that always seem stump
the reps, exchange business cards, send her on her way and notify our switchboard
operator to send her to voicemail from now on.

That’s not what happened at all! After a wonderful chat for almost 45 minutes, I walked away a believer … well, almost.
I’m still not sure if we can fit the benefit into our program this year. But I am sure that was the best sales meeting I’ve ever had with a benefits rep. Here’s why:

  • She was knowledgeable about the healthcare system and the workings of insurance and our current plan offerings so she was able to speak confidently about the ways she believed their benefit could enhance and improve our plan.
  • She had researched our business and already had several ideas on how to handle informational meetings and enrollments in a way that was not disruptive to our business. She was familiar with our annual enrollment times and was able to ideas on how to add the benefit in a way that wouldn’t create tons of extra work for me and our satellite offices. Of course, her husband being a current employee of ours probably helped her tremendously. However, if she is half as prepared for meetings with her other clients as she was when she met with me, that lady is going to be very successful in her job!

I wish everyone trying to peddle something was that prepared. Most HR professionals are wearing multiple hats on the job. These days, the Benefits Manager likely deals with health benefits and wellness and the retirement plan and COBRA and leave of absence and worker’s compensation. No one with all that stuff going on has the time or inclination to spend time figuring out how to reinvent or
improve the wheel that is their program—especially if the addition looks like
it is going to add a ton of additional work to their plate. Reps and brokers must
do a better job of partnering with employers to figure this thing out a little better. If HR has to know it all and do it all, the reps and brokers are useless.

This rep made it clear to me that there were some very obvious perks to adding their coverage to our plan. And she made it seem possible to add the benefit with minimal disruption and difficulty to our current program and process. Isn’t that all any Benefits Administrator really wants from the coverage offered?






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