Health Agents Must Be Nimble To Maintain Traditional Position

By

Minneapolis

Once upon a time, health insurance agents connected employers to their health insurers.

Today, agents and employers do business with cafeteria plan administrators, federal benefits law compliance specialists, payroll services, training firms, human resources information system vendors, software automation companies and Web companies.

Agencies should do their best to manage all those many outside services and advisors, to defend their traditional position as the advisors who speak directly to the employers, according to Fred Robertson, executive vice president of BenefitMall.com, Dallas, a Web-based brokerage.

“Access to data is king,” Robertson told agents here at the annual convention of the National Association of Health Underwriters.

Robertson described a world where agents manage employers’ benefits programs by managing access to employee data, and “the key piece is the HRIS system.”

An HRIS system is a database that contains many different types of payroll, benefits and human resources information.

Some employers still handle payroll with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but others are adopting HRIS systems that incorporate tools for handling taxes, payroll deduction payment options, compliance with federal health insurance regulations, and other tasks.

Half a dozen Web companies had booths in the NAHU exhibit hall. Many of the Web companies and traditional vendors are offering to help employers combine human resources and benefits functions that used to be separate, Robertson said.

The number of Web exhibitors was about half of what it was at the 2000 convention, but Robertson warned that brutal competition in employment-related industries other than health insurance could increase the pressure on health insurance agents, by forcing payroll companies and other types of companies to scramble for new sources of revenue.

“There’s a lot on the table,” Robertson said. “It’s easy pickings.”

Some health agents said they could be far more aggressive about using the Web if Web site design companies and hosting companies looked as if they had a little more staying power.

Robertson recommended that agencies cope with the dot-com shakeout by doing business with several different technology providers.

“Most of those that continue to exist are doing OK,” he said, adding he “would look at multiple opportunities.”

Robertson said agents should also keep an eye on Web partners’ technical abilities, to ensure that the partners have the systems and contracts needed to get customer information out of health insurers’ computers as standards evolve.

He also remarked in passing on the effects of the push toward standards on smaller insurers that cling to old, proprietary computer systems.

BenefitMall recently spent $250,000 to hook its computers up to the computers of a large California health insurer.

Roberson said BenefitMall cannot afford to spend $250,000 to develop a separate interface for each carrier in a state with many different carriers. “I will try to tackle the big ones first,” he said.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, July 6, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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