Benefits advisers change healthcare with collaboration not competition | EBA

Benefits advisers change healthcare with collaboration not competition | EBA

By all accounts, Sommer Sherrod and Michael Espinosa are competitors. But in the interest of better serving their clients, they view each other first and foremost as collaborators. 

Sherrod is the VP of healthcare strategy and people strategy consulting at Insurance Office of America in Orlando, having pivoted to benefits advising after a 20-year career in HR at Fortune 100 companies. Espinosa is an insurance broker with Insurance Consultants of Central Florida, having previously worked at Aetna. As two active members of their local communities, as well as leaders within their industry, Sherrod and Espinosa have developed a friendship and working relationship that allows them to challenge their own ideas and guide their clients to better results. 

“We met at a networking event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and hit it off, and realized that, yes, we’re in the same business and we’re competitors, but hey, we have a great relationship and we’re thought leaders in this industry,” Sherrod says. The pair now co-chair the organization that helped them meet, in addition to putting their heads together to navigate a fast-changing industry. 

Read more: Is virtual care the key to better, more equitable health outcomes?

Sherrod and Espinosa recently spoke with EBN about shifts in the insurance and healthcare worlds, best practices for advisers and brokers who truly want to deliver better results, and why communication — with employers and employees alike — must be honest and transparent. 

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’m curious: What differences have you noticed, pre- and post-pandemic, when it comes to employee needs? 

Sommer Sherrod, VP of healthcare strategy and people strategy consulting at Insurance Office of America

Sherrod: Utilization is way up, maybe because of the pandemic — people had put off a lot of healthcare [during the pandemic], and then there was a spike in utilization. There are extraordinarily high renewals, so you see groups having to make tough decisions in order to make it affordable. They’re maybe implementing leaner networks or higher deductibles, and creating changes that can be stressful for employees. Balancing the bottom line with employee needs has been a challenging endeavor as of late. 

Michael Espinosa, insurance broker, Insurance Consultants of Central Florida

Espinosa: I’m seeing a lot more of the leaner networks. If you want the old traditional, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too network with benefits, it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Employers are willing to offer it, but maybe it’s a buy-up option, which gives the employee the option to pay the difference. Regardless of what you do, not everyone’s going to be happy, but there are tough decisions to make. 

What are some ways to have those tough conversations with clients? 
Espinosa: If you engage employees on the front end, they feel part of the team, whether it’s good news or bad news. It’s frustrating to go into an enrollment meeting, give a bunch of bad news and see all these long faces. But employee engagement surveys and having that open dialogue, open-door policy goes a long way. 

Sherrod: I was with an organization recently that migrated to a leaner network, and the leadership team — the decision makers — didn’t fully understand the implications of the network differences. So employees of course would have no clue if leadership isn’t aware. And then it becomes a very busy season for a benefits person to answer all those questions about changes. 

Read more: 5 health insurance pitfalls businesses can avoid

How do you respond to those situations, when you realize the organization is just not aware of what’s happening with their benefits?
Sherrod: It just becomes catch up, on things that should have been front-end. Open enrollment communications are so key, and you need to have a strategy. For most people, open enrollment is last on their list of to-dos. So maybe send a postcard to people’s homes saying, Hey, there are big changes coming to healthcare, so make sure you dial in to one of these meetings. Tell them in bright lights: things are different now. 

Espinosa: I have groups posting things in conference rooms and break rooms, just reminding employees: Hey, it’s meeting time, we’re going to have some changes. You don’t have to go into all the full details, but let people know they need to be there and listen. Then we can try and deliver the message in the best format we can. 

The idea of employee benefits as a recruitment and retention strategy is a very loud conversation right now. What are you hearing from clients, if at all, about how their benefits and healthcare are impacting their ability to attract and retain talent? 
Sherrod: I’ll be frank: My clients who pay the most employer contributions towards their employees, are the employees who are the happiest. The more employers can chip in and provide really affordable coverage, that makes people feel happy, and that it’s a gift. 

How do you manage employee interest in buzzy programs like caregiving benefits and pet insurance while still delivering good healthcare and good health insurance? 
Sherrod: Pet insurance and LegalShield and all those bells and whistles have been around a long time, and I think they’re commonplace — I don’t think people think they’re snazzy anymore, but they do expect them and utilize them to some degree. Self-development are two more realistic needs that people have right now. The workforce has been spinning from an HR perspective. It’s frantic, that’s what I feel like the employee populations are in these companies. Maybe the pandemic prompted, What do I do with my life? or Why am I really here? So career-pathing and understanding how to invest in employees is more important than ever. Leadership development, career coaching, that’s risen to a higher degree. 

Read more:Long story short: Healthcare access is in the spotlight — is your business prepared?

Espinosa: Business as usual is gone. Employees want hybrid work schedules, they want more work from home. And on top of that, a couple of my clients asked me what type of mental health benefits we have — a lot of carriers will put out some sort of a mini EAP program, and it does an OK job, but I’m encouraging employers to buy a full-fledged EAP plan, and have paired up through my networking groups with a couple of psychiatry groups that are willing to go into groups to talk to employees, whether one-on-one or for a fee for a group setting, just to talk about mental health awareness. 

Sherrod: Mental health and addictions have been prevalent issues we’ve seen in the past couple of years, and people don’t talk about that at work. EAPs are wonderful, but they go underutilized because people feel ashamed to call it up, or whatever the barriers are.

That discussion of addiction and substance abuse has of course been bubbling up a lot more, and is very adjacent to mental health support. Do you think these conversations will continue when the pandemic is truly behind us? 
Sherrod: I have been talking about addiction therapy, but there’s a lot of resistance in the leadership ranks because they feel that’s invading their employees’ privacy. One of my leaders of an organization said, ‘If my guys didn’t drink beer every night, they wouldn’t want to come to work the next day — that’s their way to be happy and I’m not going to tell them how to live their personal life.’ Those are real barriers to change, so it will be interesting to see if it evolves and becomes more welcomed, because Michael and I bring it to the table and encourage it. 

There’s obviously a lot of changes happening within the industry. Are you feeling optimistic about the future? 
Sherrod: One positive thing I think has come out of all the change is that employers and employees are more in touch than they’ve ever been. Employees are more vocal than they’ve ever been. You don’t have the water cooler talk anymore, you have a stream of dialogue happening. And that motivates me because everyone is chipping in and being honest. Nobody is going to solve healthcare complexities in a day, but we can talk about what we need and put it out in the universe. 

Read more: Why this Tennessee brewery is offering free healthcare benefits

As advisers, how much do you  collaborate and talk about some of these issues amongst yourselves and among peers and friends? 
Sherrod: I have a village of competitors — not a huge village, but a village — that I know I can trust, and we’ll shoot straight and talk as we’re trying to make the industry better. We’re not worried about someone trying to steal our clients, right? It’s collaborative. I really appreciate those relationships so much. 

Espinosa: Bouncing ideas off each other is just another way to make the system work a little better.