after all Summer Sherrod and Michael Espinosa are competitors. But in the interests of better service to their customers, they see each other primarily as employees.
Sherrod is Vice President of Healthcare Strategy and People Strategy Consulting at the Insurance Office of America in Orlando, having transitioned into benefits consulting after a 20-year career in human resources at Fortune 100 companies. Espinosa is an insurance broker with Insurance Consultants of Central Florida, having previously worked at Aetna. As two active members of their local communities, as well as leaders in their industries, Sherrod and Espinosa have developed a friendship and working relationship that allows them to challenge their own ideas and guide their clients to better outcomes.
“We met at a networking event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and hit it off and realized we’re in the same business and competitors but hey we have a great relationship and we’re respected leaders in this industry ‘ says Sherrod. The two now co-run the organization that helped them meet and put their heads together to navigate a rapidly changing industry.
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Sherrod and Espinosa recently spoke to EBN about shifts in the insurance and healthcare Worlds, best practices for consultants and brokers who really want to deliver better results, and why communication – with employers and employees alike – must be honest and transparent.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m curious: What differences have you noticed before and after the pandemic when it comes to employee needs?
Sherrod: Utilization is high, perhaps because of the pandemic – people had been putting off a lot of healthcare [during the pandemic], and then there was an increase in utilization. There are so many renewals that you can see that groups have to make tough decisions to make it affordable. They may implement leaner networks or higher deductibles and create changes that can be stressful for employees. Balancing the bottom line with employee needs has been a challenging endeavor lately.
Espinosa: I see a lot more of the leaner networks. If you want the old traditional network with benefits, it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Employers are willing to offer it, but perhaps it’s a buyout option that gives the employee the option to pay the difference. Regardless of what you do, not everyone will be happy, but there are tough choices to make.
What are the ways to have these difficult conversations with customers?
Espinosa: When you involve employees on the front end, whether it’s good news or bad, they feel part of the team. It’s frustrating going to an enrollment meeting, delivering a bunch of bad news, and seeing all those long faces. But employee engagement surveys and open dialogue, an open-door policy, go a long way.
Sherrod: I was recently at an organization that migrated to a lighter network, and the leadership team – the decision makers – didn’t fully understand the impact of the differences in the network. Of course, the employees wouldn’t have a clue if management didn’t know. And then it becomes a very busy time for a benefits worker to answer all these change questions.
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How do you respond to such situations when you realize that the organization just doesn’t know what’s going to happen to their assets?
Sherrod: It will just catch up, things that should have been front-end. Open enrollment communication is so important and you need to have a strategy. For most people, open enrollment is last on their to-do list. So maybe send a postcard to people’s homes and say, hey, there are big changes coming in healthcare so make sure you dial in to one of these meetings. Tell them in a bright light: Everything is different now.
Espinosa: I have groups that put things up in conference rooms and break rooms just to remind employees: Hey, it’s meeting time, we’re going to make some changes. You don’t have to go into all the details, but let people know they need to be there and listen. Then we can try to deliver the message in the best possible format.
The idea of benefits as a recruitment and retention strategy is a very loud conversation these days. What, if anything, do you hear from customers about how their benefits and healthcare impact their ability to attract and retain talent?
Sherrod: I’ll be honest: my clients, who pay the most employer contributions to their employees, are the happiest employees. The more employers that can get involved and offer truly affordable insurance coverage, the happier people feel, and that’s a gift.
How can you manage employee interest in lively programs like foster care and pet insurance, while still providing good healthcare and health insurance?
Sherrod: Pet insurance and LegalShield and all those bells and whistles have been around for a long time and I think they’re commonplace – I don’t think people think they’re fancy, but they expect them and use them to some degree. Self-development are two other realistic needs people currently have. From an HR perspective, the workforce is turning. It’s hectic, so I feel like the employee populations are in these companies. Perhaps the pandemic has led What am I doing with my life? or Why am I actually here? Therefore, it is more important than ever to build a career and understand how to invest in people. Leadership development, career coaching, that’s increased to a greater extent.
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Espinosa: Business as usual is over. Employees want hybrid working time models, they want more work from home. And on top of that, a couple of my clients have asked me what kind of mental health benefits we have – many carriers offer some sort of mini-EAP program and it does a good job, but I encourage employers to have a full-fledged EAP plan buy and join me through my networking groups with a few psychiatric groups who are willing to go in groups to talk to staff, be it individually or for a fee for a group setting just to talk about mental health awareness.
Sherrod: Mental health and addiction have been common issues that we’ve seen over the last few years and people don’t talk about them at work. EAPs are wonderful, but they are underused because people are ashamed to call them or whatever the obstacles are.
Of course, this discussion of addiction and substance abuse is much more effervescent and verges very much on mental health support. Do you think these talks will continue when the pandemic is truly behind us?
Sherrod: I have talked about addiction treatment but there is a lot of opposition from management circles because they feel it is an invasion of the privacy of their employees. One of my organization leaders said, “If my boys didn’t drink beer every night, they wouldn’t want to come to work the next day – it’s their way of being happy and I’m not going to tell them how their personal lives are.” Life.’ These are real obstacles to change, so it will be interesting to see if they evolve and become more welcome as Michael and I bring them to the table and encourage them.
There are obviously many changes within the industry. Are you optimistic about the future?
Sherrod: One positive thing I think has come out of all the changes is that employers and employees are more connected than ever. The staff are louder than ever. You no longer have the water dispenser talk, you have a stream of dialogues taking place. And that motivates me because everyone is involved and honest. No one will solve the complexities of healthcare in a day, but we can talk about what we need and get it out into the world.
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How much do you work together as a consultant and do you talk about some of these issues with each other and with colleagues and friends?
Sherrod: I have a village of competitors — not a huge village, but a village — that I can trust, and we’ll shoot and talk clearly as we try to make the industry better. We’re not worried about someone trying to steal our customers, right? It’s cooperative. I really appreciate those relationships.
Espinosa: Sharing ideas with each other is just another way to make the system work a little better.