As organizations work to overcome the initial challenges associated with healthcare reform, forward-thinking benefits consultants are already pondering the next wave of changes.
James Klein has some advice for insurance brokers on the topic of where to focus their energy in the wake of recent federal healthcare reform: Don't look back.
"Healthcare reform is still the No. 1 issue, but I think the focus has changed somewhat," says the president of the Washington-based American Benefits Council. "We're moving away from immediate implementation issues -- and there are still some of those -- and toward looking further ahead to 2014, when the law is fully implemented and what the implications are for large employers."
Klein says 2014 has the potential to bring with it tremendous change in the healthcare arena for organizations, and the best benefits consultants are already working on future solutions for their clients.
"Right now, there's a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the [healthcare reform] law, and no one knows what the legal rulings will be," he says, "but the most prudent advice is to proceed forward on the assumption that the law will go fully into effect in 2014 and not to wait until closer to the date, because it could be tough to scramble and catch up."
The applicants for this year's Top Employee Benefits Consultant contest provided a window to what consultants are doing to manage the rollout of healthcare reform, with many of them keeping a steady eye on the present while casting the other eye at least three years ahead.
Marcia Benshoof, president of benefits at IMA Financial Group in Denver, is one such forward-thinking consultant. Her firm has been busy developing tools to help its clients determine the answers to some vital questions around the upcoming changes.
"We see [healthcare reform] as a unique opportunity to create new and innovative products," she says, adding that IMA's tools are helping answer clients' two biggest questions: Is grandfathering worthwhile for my organization? and, Should we "pay or play" in the exchange environment?
Benshoof says the tools provide answers from financial, business-operations and cultural perspectives, and are necessary because benefits consultants need to be conversant with their clients in exactly those terms.
"You'd better be able to talk business, not just insurance," she says. "And you'd better be able to talk about how you're going to use [a company's workforce] and make it the most healthy and engaged workforce they have, because it's now a business imperative."
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Benefits consultants on the cutting edge of the market are also working to address the issue of poor overall health among workers, which Helen Darling, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health, calls "a big problem."
"The best consultants are identifying ways to make sure they have a culture of health inside the company, and that they are essentially driving improvement through incentives and programs so healthcare-cost curves will be bent downward because people are becoming healthier."
Communication is another area in which these consultants need to be on the ball, Darling says.
"Communication, as it is in every area, is the key to success. [It] has to drive change, and so it has to be very powerful," Darling says.
J.D. Piro, a principal and national practice leader in the health-law consulting group in Aon Hewitt's Norwalk, Conn., office, also knows the value of being able to pass on his knowledge of the industry to clients.
"Part of my job [is] to educate clients on the cost of getting out of healthcare versus the cost of staying in," he says. "For many clients, their first reaction was to 'do the math' -- look at the cost of staying in versus the cost of paying the penalty; some considered getting out and paying the lesser number."
But that employer penalty is really a floor, not a ceiling, he says. If too many employers get out of providing health insurance, Congress could step in and revise the $2,000 penalty upwards.
"That $2,000 penalty is only based on a static analysis," he says. "It's like comparing a snapshot to a DVD."
By showing employers that they face the prospect of no long-term savings and no future ability to manage healthcare costs, "it helped to refocus the discussion with clients on other cost-saving strategies, such as exchanges and investing in the health and productivity of their employees," Piro says.
Just as communication is necessary, so is the ability to keep an eye on bottom lines going forward.
"We're in a state of relative desperation," Darling says. "So having new ideas that control costs -- but, at the same time, don't upset employees too much -- is key because, if employers going forward aren't bending their own curves for costs, or even reducing them, then they're going to have even more serious problems" as full implementation of the healthcare-reform laws approaches.
" ... Being able to call in, or rely on, [the best benefits consultants] to help in these very serious ways is critical," she says, "now more than ever."
See the 2011 Top Employee Benefits Consultant winners: