Compiled by Thora Madden
Cal Broker checked in with some of our favorite general agencies to get a glimpse of they’re seeing right now. Here’s what they had to say …
Cal Broker: How has COVID impacted your business?
Stephanie Shields, SVP of broker sales, Aflac
As an organization, our business remains the same: helping provide an additional layer of financial protection through difficult times by paying cash fast when policyholders get sick or injured. At the onset of
the pandemic, Aflac was already investing toward growth initiatives to evolve with the digital trends in the benefits landscape, so the coronavirus accelerated our existing efforts. As workforces quickly transitioned to largely operating remotely, Aflac had to pivot the way we traditionally facilitated benefits enrollment — face to face — to providing best-in-class enrollment resources and capabilities in a virtual environment, all with a customer experience that balances high-tech with the human touch. Pandemic conditions amplified Aflac’s growth strategy to help businesses have a one-stop shop for benefits solutions. Prior to and during the pandemic, Aflac built on its continuous growth strategy, including our national launch of network dental and vision products as well as completing the acquisition of Zurich North America’s U.S. Corporate Life and Pensions (Group Benefits) business, including group life, disability and absence management products. In addition to being a top supplemental insurance provider and a trusted brand for nearly 70 years, Aflac is well positioned now more than ever to stand by our promise to be there for customers during their times of need. 2020 was a difficult year for everyone globally, and we are hopeful that we will soon see the situation improve. Aflac is committed to continuing serving clients and customers to help them find solutions utilizing our benefit offerings.
Jennifer Lisanti director of sales, Beere & Purves
COVID-19 has affected the way we do business, but thankfully not the bottom line. Just like most offices, we had to quickly transition to working from home. It was a smooth transition and resulted in even more efficient processes overall. The biggest change was the sales department had to shift how they interact with our clients. Instead of spending most of their day in person at agency offices, educating them on our carriers, or conducting in-person enrollment meetings, they had to move 100% virtual. In some ways it is easier to connect with clients because people are on the road less and more available. Online enrollment gained even more traction with the circumstances with COVID-19. Online enrollment expedites getting forms completed by work from home employees and returned contact free. Beere & Purves (B&P) helps agents with Ease. We set up new groups and renewals, monitor the enrollment process, pull the submission, and submit to the carriers. In 2020, more agencies took us up on our ongoing maintenance services as well.
Small Group quotes in 2020 were down from 2019 but since small group renewals continue to be minimal for the fourth year in a row, if a group
is content with their current carrier there is no reason to go to market. We continue to hear from agents that employers want to have the least amount of disruption possible since there continues to be so much unknown in the world. Employees and employers are struggling with COVID-19 safety, financial pressures, and managing kids’ online schooling. We expected our block to take an initial hit when the Shelter in Place began, but to date, persistency has been very stable. We have seen a lot of movement in Large Group resulting in better sales than 2019.
Jack Lyons SVP, west region sales, LISI
When COVID-19 hit, LISI was in an excellent position to respond to a work-from-home environment because our marketing team had created
such a strong digital presence. New communications platforms helped
us disseminate early COVID-19 compliance information and market updates through our expanded LinkedIn presence, our Carrier Calls podcast series, our Coffee with Carriers video series, and our newsletter. I am most proud of how quickly the entire LISI team has adapted, bringing new technology to communicate with our brokers and helping them work more effectively with their clients.
Our business intelligence team has provided state and federal HR and compliance updates on a weekly, daily, and sometimes hourly basis. LISI sales support teams have used their expertise to help brokers conduct Zoom enrollment meetings and communicate effectively with clients and prospects in a whole new environment.
Marc McGinnis SVP, sales & strategic client management, Word & Brown General Agency
We’re busier than ever! As employers and their employees look for answers about maintaining or getting health insurance, coverage for COVID-19 treatment, COBRA and Cal-COBRA benefits, and other matters, the pandemic has reinforced the important role of health insurance brokers and General Agents. We are all working from home and working to support the demand for virtual services, like enrollments, sales meetings, and trainings. We have also seen online enrollment activity jump up 40% in the past year. We have used a number of different technology platforms with our customers that allow us to create meaningful and engaging experiences, even if we are not there in person. We expect this to be a growing trend throughout 2021. We also have our tech team to support the increasing demands of brokers and their customers as things continue to evolve on the technology front.
CB: How can a GA most help agents in today’s climate?
Shields, AFLAC: In this ever-changing benefits landscape, GAs can efforts to help educate and streamline processes that are in the best interests of employers and employees. Whether offering counsel on benefits technology solutions or a year-long benefits communication strategy, it
is paramount to listen and ask the right questions as well as know how to connect expressed needs with practical solutions.
Lisanti, Beere & Purves: Initially, the immediate need was for information. How would carriers handle furloughs? Groups struggling to pay their premiums? Would there be special open windows? Leniency on new business submissions since it was difficult to gather documents while they were working from home? How would the carriers handle treatment of COVID-19, etc.? B&P was able to quickly gather the details from the carriers and consolidate the information to help agents with the questions their clients were bombarding them with. Once the demand for information settled down, we then focused on providing tools to help our clients learn how to work in the new virtual world efficiently and successfully. Clients adapted. We then essentially transitioned to business as normal, just virtually. We continue to help agents stay on top of the constantly changing information from carriers, COVID-19, and legislation. We market new and renewing groups, submit clean new group submissions for quick approvals, and provide valuable service to inforce groups: adds, terms, assistance with billing issues, claim issues, etc. Ultimately, B&P continues to help agents work efficiently because they delegate to us and they know we will help them quickly and accurately resulting in excellent service to their clients and frees them up to focus on growing their business.
Lyons, LISI: It’s been a challenging time for everyone, but it’s made us a more effective industry. COVID-19 has accelerated the trend toward digitization. Employers need the best tools and resources to communicate effectively with employees in a work-at-home environment. Even after COVID-19, this trend is not going away as some employers plan to make telecommuting permanent, at least to some degree. They need video and online communications for everything from hiring, to benefits enrollment,
to training and more. Employers also need more support than ever to keep up with compliance, which is always a moving target. A whole new set of issues are arising as employees plan return-to-work efforts including issues with PPPs, COVID-19 testing, and vaccines. We see this as all part of our mission to help each broker become a one-stop-resource for their clients. We also have a vital role in offering world-class technology so brokers can compete and win against digital start-ups.
McGinnis, Word & Brown: General agents can be of the greatest benefit to brokers by providing them with resources to help them respond to changing client needs. By helping brokers understand the full range
of services and support available — whether it relates to quoting, enrollment, account management, compliance or other assistance — GAs can positively affect the lives of producers and those they serve. Offering online, virtual and in-person help to brokers enables them to focus more of their time on prospecting, sales, and renewals. Brokers are looking for increased support with eligibility transactions in general online enrollment and maintenance. Many were forced to embrace new technology to help them manage their clients and their books of business. However, some have needed further help making the most of their new tools. Our organization has been instrumental in training brokers on innovative technology, tools, and resources – while also managing the lift of implementation and eligibility transactions.
CB: What is your biggest concern for the industry right now?
Shields, AFLAC: A continuing concern is the rising cost of healthcare. Not only do employers need to better prepare for emotionally supporting employees, they also need to prepare for higher healthcare costs as employees are seeking less preventative care due to the pandemic. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that about half of adults (52%) say they or another family member in their household skipped or postponed some type of medical or dental care because of the coronavirus pandemic, including 42% who personally skipped or postponed care. Dental care was the most likely to be skipped or postponed, followed by regular checkups or physical exams. One solution lies with year-round employee education and reminders to use the benefits already purchased to help with preventative care. Another way to help with this concern is by expanding benefits offered at the worksite, including supplemental insurance.
Lisanti, Beere & Purves: At this point, the biggest concern continues to be COVID-19 and the effect on the economy. While persistency has held so far, we know a lot of small businesses are struggling with the duration of COVID-19 so we expect to see a lot more small businesses going out of business. We do continue to see a healthy number of start-ups. As we all know, crisis is the mother of invention. Another challenge that appears to be growing is that with more companies allowing their employees to work from anywhere, there has been an increase of migration outside of California. As a result, more and more employers have less eligible employees in California than outside of California which can make meeting underwriting rules as a California employer a challenge. However, COVID-19, just like the ACA rollout, has reminded employers of the value of their insurance broker. Employees value their medical coverage more than ever and employers appreciate having an expert that can guide them through employee benefits, COVID-19 information, and new legislation. Employers rely on their agents to help them strategize on how best to take care of their valuable employees in the most financially prudent ways for the business in these difficult times. B&P continues to be behind the scenes helping agents work as efficiently and successfully as possible.
Lyons, LISI: Aside from the need for rapid digitization, our industry faces
a new regulatory environment that comes with a new administration. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Our industry has not only adapted, but also thrived with every regulatory and legislative change that’s come our way. We’ve proven, over and over, that we have an essential role to play in healthcare access. In fact, I think that brokers are more vital than ever in helping employers navigate the increasingly complex world of employee benefits.
It’s been a challenging time for everyone, but it’s made us a more effective industry … Aside from the need for rapid digitization, our industry faces a new regulatory environment that comes with a new administration. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.
McGinnis, Word & Brown: The longer we are locked down due to COVID-19, the greater the impact on employers. Businesses may continue to furlough or terminate employees and reduce their group health plan participation. This creates a challenge for brokers as it relates to income, while also affecting the financial growth opportunities of general agencies, and the employment of our workforce. Our goal is to provide support to ensure employers and brokers can be effective, saving them both time and money, with the intent that employers can retain their workforce and maintain their employee benefits. We are also working closely
with our partners at NAHU on our industry response to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which mandates brokers disclose to employers how much they make from insurance carriers and vendors. This is of serious concern to our community, and Word & Brown continues to help shed light on the importance and the value of the broker community to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., both through financial contributions to the Health Insurance Political Action Committee and through our own lobbying efforts.