As the old joke goes, the scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you".
Regardless of their party affiliation or perspectives on the issues, most brokers would agree that lawmakers have not done them many favors in 2017. All of the dithering over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) resulted in nothing but more confusion. Many longtime health insurance carriers announced their intent to drop out. Add in a shortened open enrollment period, and the stage is set for a stressful fall.
Or is it? Here are seven reasons why open enrollment actually may go smoother this year.
Uncertainty is one of the greatest challenges any broker can face. A year ago, the industry was speculating about who would win the presidential election and control Congress, and whether Washington would mend or end the ACA.
Now it's clear that neither will happen in the immediate future. Although that's far from the desired outcome for most brokers, this at least makes it easier to plan for next year and possibly beyond.
Related: Chaos breeds opportunity
"The absolute earliest anything could change in the individual market is 2019," said Terry Frett, senior benefits consultant for R&R Insurance in Waukesha, Wisconsin "We are too far gone now. Carriers have already had to file rates, which would make change impossible for 2018."
This year, open enrollment starts on Nov. 1 and continues through Dec. 15. This means the selling period is cut in half, from three months in 2015 and 2016, to just 45 days.
Admittedly, this is a two-edged sword as brokers strive to accomplish the same amount of work in half the time. But it can also provide an incentive for clients to get on the ball, become better organized, and start early to meet the deadline.
Think of this year's open enrollment as running a half-marathon instead of a full 26.2 mile race. The pace will be faster and it may be painful at times, but it will also be over much faster. Plus, it will leave time to do last-minute shopping and enjoy the holidays!
The shorter open enrollment period creates a sense of urgency among clients and an opportunity to lay important groundwork before November 1. Smart brokers will spend September and October getting themselves up to speed on the latest regulatory and marketplace developments; learning about the specific needs of their clients; and holding as many educational meetings as possible. When open enrollment starts, they can spend less time explaining and more time enrolling.
The good news is that most employers want their broker to take the lead, especially with a condensed period in which to make complex decisions. According to BenefitsPRO's 2017 employer survey, 56 percent of employers feel their broker helps with enrollment, and 19 percent say their broker conducts enrollment.
The next two months are also the time to step up client communications. Eighty-three percent of employers surveyed said they are satisfied with the level of ongoing communications with their broker, while 16 percent said they would like more communication.
Broker technology continues to advance, and clients and employees are increasingly adept at using that technology to make informed choices. Brokers who feel they need more staff to meet the challenges of a shorter open enrollment may find that technology can fill many of their needs without the overhead.
How important is technology? Seventy-three percent of employers rated it as "a must have" in BenefitsPRO's 2017 employer survey. Now is the ideal time for brokers to not only assess and upgrade their own technology as needed, but also determine which technology best serves the needs of their clients. For example, many employees may prefer receiving plan information online or in a PDF format that they can share with their family instead of hearing it in a meeting.
Putting technology to work in September and October can help alleviate the inevitable time and labor crunch that is coming in November.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made an insightful (if confusing) comment during the Iraq War:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
This neatly sums up the health insurance industry in the fall of 2017. However, as bewildering as things may seem to brokers, they are far more confusing to clients. More than ever, they are looking to brokers not simply as vendors, but as valued business partners. Brokers who can make themselves indispensable during open enrollment may find opportunities to increase their sales long after December 15.
The days of Lone Ranger brokers (if they ever existed) are long gone. More than anything, employers expect their broker to be a problem solver, whether alone or as part of a team.
This requires understanding the limitations of what a broker can accomplish and partnering with a client's accountant, attorney or other professional as needed. This approach also offers a more holistic approach to the client's business and shows how a decision in one area can have an impact on others. Brokers should also be prepared to recommend outside professionals as needed.
Teamwork is a great way to share both the workload and the responsibility. As a bonus, building working relationships with respected professionals may lead to client referrals down the road.
As challenging as the health insurance business has become, it remains foundational to brokers and clients alike. Seventy-seven percent of employers in BenefitsPRO's 2017 employer survey said it is the most important benefit they offer.
Selling health insurance — and doing it well — can open the door for ancillary products. Brokers who understand client needs and details about their plans also know which products can fill in the gaps. Voluntary benefits will play an increasing important role in coming years, says Fred Joyner, owner of Carolina Benefit Administrators in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"What we have been suggesting is to be proactive and take advantage of ancillary products to supplement your income," he says. "Look at fixed indemnity-type products, where the policy pays `X' amount for a hospital stay or office visit."
This year's open enrollment will be a challenging time for everyone involved. However, brokers who are up to the test can make things much smoother for their clients this fall and for themselves in the future.
"My advice is to take care of your immediate clients first," says Terry Frett of R&R Insurance in Waukesha, Wisconsin. "We are being proactive by sending clients educational information so they will know what is happening this year. The three most important reminders are that open enrollment will be during a compressed time period this year; that the policy they have in 2018 will not be the same one that they have this year; and that they can expect a minimum 20 percent rate increase."