In seeking an answer to this problem, an overburdened HR director can make his or her life easier and ensure that the best decision is being made by following the three recommendations below. These ideas were put forth by Sharon Alt, president of Alt Benefit Consultants, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas:
1. Don't be a Do-It-Yourselfer
Yes, it is the HR director's responsibility to pick the most appropriate plan for the company, but that doesn't mean he or she has to do it alone. Most insurance companies don't distribute their products directly to the end user. Instead, they go through a middleman — the insurance agent. A good agent will visit with the HR director, find out what the company is looking for, shop the market, analyze the various options available to find the very best one, and make a plan recommendation to the client. Like the HR professional, the insurance agent doesn't have an easy job.
2. Find a Good Agent
Health insurance agents come in all shapes and sizes. Some have a 9-5 job and just dabble in insurance on the side; some focus their attention on other products, like life insurance or property & casualty, and only offer health insurance as a convenience to their clients; and others focus all of their time and attention on employee benefits. Any one of the three is capable of making a good recommendation to the client, but given the number of plans available and the complexities of some of the ''out of the box'' options, like HRAs and HSAs, the part-time agent is definitely at a disadvantage. The HR director will probably want to interview several agents to find one that he or she is comfortable with and that has the professional training necessary to make the right recommendation to the client. It's also important to find an honest, reliable agent, one who tells his or her clients what they need to hear, even if they don't want to hear it. This isn't easy to do, as a lot of agents simply go with the easy option, recommending a plan that looks as much like the current plan as possible. You definitely don't want an agent who takes the easy way out, so when you're interviewing potential agents, ask for examples of how they've used creative solutions to help their other clients.
3. Follow Your Agent's Advice
What good does it do to go through the trouble of interviewing several agents and picking the best one if you're not going to listen to what they recommend? A good agent is like a good coach — someone who will tell you the things you don't want to hear so you can achieve the things you want to achieve. Health care costs are rising, which means that insurance costs are rising, and we can't expect different results by going with the same old insurance plans. We need to step outside our comfort zone and look at alternative solutions that might give us a shot at keeping our costs under control. If you're fortunate enough to find an agent who will help you explore these options, keep an open mind. You just might like the results.
Alt says that every agent is ''looking for a hook, something they can tell potential clients that will help them get their foot in the door.'' To these agents, her recommendation is to be unreasonable. She adds, ''Let your prospective clients know that if they honor you by giving you their business, you will make the commitment to fight for them, even if that means fighting with them. You will be a good coach and you'll tell them what they need to hear, even if they don't want to hear it. You will bring them plan options that might take them out of their comfort zone but that will help them keep their costs under control so they can continue to offer a quality benefits package to their employees.''
According to Alt, to become this sort of agent you will need to work on yourself. ''Become a professional. Join a professional association (I personally recommend the National Association of Health Underwriters for anyone specializing in employee benefits). Stop looking for quick fixes. Have a long-term perspective and learn about the cutting-edge, creative solutions that might serve as a long-term solution for your clients while helping to keep health insurance in the private market.''
Following Alt's advice may give you a much-needed solution to a sticky problem. With today's skyrocketing health care costs, every dollar counts, and finding ways to deal effectively in this area will undoubtedly save you some headaches.