10 key takeaways from Workplace Benefits Renaissance

Financial wellness, recruiting tactics, direct primary care and the latest and greatest technology: Those were among the main talking points at the Workplace Benefits Renaissance, held last week in Nashville.

Brokers, employers and other benefits industry experts discussed it all while gathered during the annual conference, hosted by Employee Benefit Adviser.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the annual event.

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Brokers need to step into the financial wellness space
Employers are learning money troubles follow their workforce to the office and the doctor — decreasing productivity and raising medical costs. But benefit brokers are a company’s best resource for helping employees become financially fit.

Around half of U.S. companies are already implementing financial wellness programs, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management. But many of those programs are ineffective because they don’t inspire employee engagement.

“It’s a bit overwhelming for an employer to sift through thousands of programs,” said David Stedman, founder and CEO of BrightDime. “But brokers usually have a group of financial wellness programs they trust, so they can help the employer understand what their needs are.”

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Younger workers are driving lifestyle benefits
Younger generations are often characterized as entitled and demanding — but that self-confidence in their work is pushing companies to adopt benefits outside the traditional healthcare and retirement packages.

By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the U.S. workforce, according to a study by Forbes. The first wave of Generation Z — millennials’ younger siblings — graduated college and entered the workforce last year. With these younger generations flooding the workplace, benefit advisers need to steer clients toward innovative benefits to attract and retain talent, according to panelists.

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Is direct primary care about to blow up as a benefit?
Direct primary care — a fee-based model that gives individuals unlimited access to a primary care doctor for anywhere between $60 to $150 a month, without insurance being billed — is the “future of healthcare,” says Dan Thompson, a healthcare consultant and president of Thompson Risk. The model covers much of what a patient needs, including tests, consulting, drugs and treatment, typically at a much lower cost than through insurance.

The model is fairly new, but it’s gaining momentum: There are roughly 1,000 DPC practices across 48 states and Washington, the panelists said this week. The majority of patients who use the model are families and individuals who pay for the service out of pocket, but a growing number of employers are turning to the practice as an employee benefit offering.

Because it’s still a fairly unknown system, panelists contended direct primary care is a huge opportunity for employers and brokers.

“We’re excited about the growth, but it’s still a budding movement,” said Jay Keese, CEO of Capitol Advocates, a Washington-based policy firm specializing in health issues. “The broker community, in particular, can be a huge part in growing this model because it’s a unique opportunity that most people aren’t focusing on.”

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Benefits education needs to become a priority
With the cost of employer-sponsored healthcare benefits expected to approach $15,000 per employee this year, companies are looking to make sure they get the most bang for their buck on benefits spend.

To do so, employers should educate workers about their company offerings so they become better engaged. And they should do so with the help of advisers, benefits industry experts said.

“We [advisers] keep showing up asking [employees] to check a box,” said Emma Passé, a senior account executive at the insurance firm EBMS. “What we’re really doing is telling them how the health plan works, not how they work the health plan. It’s become mechanical.”

No one is really teaching employees how to use their health plan, she said, but advisers should step in to help workers understand how their benefits function.

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Brokers may need to rethink how they approach recruiting
While advisers are skilled at helping employers find benefits that will help them attract and retain workers, brokerages themselves could use some help with recruiting and retention, experts say. A survey from the Life Insurance and Market Research Association estimates that the insurance industry has an 11% two-year retention rate.

“When we have people that don’t make it, it’s hard to look somebody in the eye and say, ‘This is where you need to be,’” said Tim Martin, founder of voluntary benefits firm Success is Voluntary.

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Benefits should be catered to employees’ life stages
Dave Freedman, general manager of group plans at LegalZoom, said there are four distinct stages for employees: Starting out, planting roots, career growth and retirement.

Providing benefits that help entry-level employees pay down student debt, buy their first car or rent their first apartment will give companies access to the best new talent. For employees planting roots, Freedman suggests offering programs to help employees buy their first house, in addition to offering time off to bond with their child when they start having families. The career growth phase is when most divorces happen and kids start going to college, Freedman said. Offering legal and financial planning services can help reduce employee burdens in these situations. And, of course, offering a comprehensive retirement plan is a great incentive for employees to stay with a company, Freedman said.

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Advisers need to get smarter about using benefits tech
There is increasingly a push for benefit advisers to bring new technology to clients, but they may need to be more strategic when using it.

Much of the industry is still paper-driven, and if brokers want to encourage clients to use new tech, they have to learn to package it in a way that is appealing, said Ron Goldstein, president and CEO of CHOICE Administrators, a developer and administrator of healthcare exchanges.

“I don’t believe technology is going to retain the business,” he said. “What’s really going to work is the package, the broker, the firm, everything you do being coupled with technology.”

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One-on-one enrollment key to benefits success?
Darrell Hart, director of benefits at Omni Hotels, doesn’t sugarcoat the former state of the hotel chain’s benefits. In a word: “Chaos.”

“It was a mess,” he said. “We had issues, and there was no consistent message.”

So in 2017, Omni partnered with brokerage Hodges-Mace to revamp its communications and enrollment strategy. One thing the two did was added full counselor-assisted annual enrollment in 2017. More than 10,000 employees scheduled appointments with 69 on-site counselors in nearly 50 locations.

It was a hit: 90% of the more than 5,000 Omni employees who responded to a company survey said they had a greater appreciation and understanding of their benefits, and 97% said they learned something new about the medical offerings and how a plan would best work for them.

“Once we did it, the general managers appreciated it, the employees liked it,” Hart said. “The HR people liked it too; they weren’t getting overworked.”

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Telemedicine, AI can reduce healthcare costs — but only if done right
While the use of telemedicine and artificial intelligence to reduce healthcare costs may hold great promise, many U.S. employers — and the advisers who guide them — are doing it all wrong.

That’s the conclusion of top healthcare and benefit advisers who say using technology and AI will hold a key role in solving the vexing problem of rising healthcare costs in America.

As a consultant, Curtis Cannon, managing partner at Axis Recovery, says he sees many brokers who lack a complete tech and data plan to create long-term strategies for healthcare cost containment for their clients.

There’s an “emerging gap in strategy — or the lack thereof. A lot of brokers have a bolt-on mindset, where you just grab something off the shelf, no matter what the data says,” he said.

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Voluntary billing problems need a focus
Employers are taking a hard look at voluntary benefits billing — and advisers can help ease the burden.

Consultants can assist clients in shifting the way voluntary benefits are paid for, William L. “Tripp” Amos, chairman of Piedmont Payment Services, said this week during Employee Benefit Adviser’s Workplace Benefits Renaissance.

“What if you could tell your clients, ‘I could eliminate voluntary benefit billing and reconciliation, remove tax liabilities associated with offering these types of benefits and simplify plan design to make it easier for your employees to understand?’” Amos asked.

Read more here.