There’s a revolution stirring in today’s medical insurance market, and it’s changing the playing field for consumers, carriers and agents. Spiraling costs are driving millions of consumers toward the individual medical market, where flexible and cost-effective policies enable them to manage their risks and their costs.

Insurance carriers of all shapes and sizes are meeting this growing demand by offering high-deductible policies, health savings accounts and other innovative products. And agents are returning to center stage as the primary drivers of policy growth. In this environment, carriers succeed by giving agents the products and tools they need to help customers navigate today’s highly complex health insurance environment.

Individual medical is the fastest growing segment of today’s health insurance industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the market expanded from 16 million lives in 2002 to 19.6 million in 2005. And IM’s greatest growth is still ahead. By 2010 an estimated 26 million people will be viable customers for IM policies.

As this meteoric growth draws more insurance carriers to the consumer choice arena, many are finding that agents and brokers hold the key to success. Structural differences between traditional and consumer-driven policies create a more complex and consultative sales process. For example, these offerings deliver broad choices in terms of costs and benefits, and it takes time and analysis to find the right risk/cost formula for each individual. These and other differences make product breadth, efficient administration and open communication between carriers and agents critically important.

Insurance carriers are standing out in this increasingly crowded market by giving agents and their customers the support they need at every step of the process–from product development and marketing support through renewals and claims. This support is especially critical in the IM arena because many variables contribute to the final sale.

Because each client has different needs and priorities, agents benefit from a broad product portfolio that provides a wide array of choices. Clients who are self-employed or work in traditionally underinsured professions like retail or construction can benefit directly from the variety of new and affordable policies options now available–including HSAs–as well as list bill for those whose employers are opting out of small group insurance but still want to connect their employees with health insurance coverage.

And many clients will definitely benefit from the tax and retirement benefits of HSAs and will look to their health insurance advisor for the latest news and advice on their benefits.

Some clients will want to replicate the network access, prescription cards, maternity coverage and other benefits they previously received through their large group policies. Still others require condition-specific deductibles for policies that would otherwise be ridered or declined.

Agents also benefit from tools that simplify and streamline the application process. When agents recommend a policy and carrier, they need fast answers about whether their client will qualify for coverage, and under what conditions. With some carriers, agents can now create customized quotes in real time and help their clients fill out and submit online applications.

Depending on the profile, they can receive answers within 48 hours–and often the same day.

As agents grow their health insurance book, they need efficient ways to manage these client relationships. Agents value relationships that enable them to speak directly to underwriters, who can help them resolve specific issues in a timely manner. Carriers are also introducing online tools that help agents track application status. Some systems even allow agents to feed account data directly into specific fields of their own management systems.

Agents can take best advantage of today’s market opportunities by aligning themselves with carriers that deliver the greatest total value. There are distinct advantages to choosing carriers with a strong financial foundation and a solid track record for serving the highly specialized IM market.

Beyond that, agents benefit from comprehensive support at every stage of the process, including diverse product offerings, marketing support, and a speedy and responsive underwriting process, all delivered by health insurance companies committed to their agents.