If you're like most health care brokers you spend a lot of time out in the field. That means you're probably seeing what I'm seeing – businesses slowing down, jobs being eliminated, profit margins evaporating and, yes, benefit packages being cut. Welcome to the gloomiest economy in our lifetime. Business owners are scared. Employees are scared. And if both of those audiences are scared then you should be, too. While I find that most business owners genuinely try to offer the best benefit package available, it's become more and more difficult for companies to maintain a stable level of coverage. Medical insurance usually gets the most attention, but it's often dental, vision or other "peripheral" benefits that take a hit. Increasingly, many companies are dropping these benefits or not even offering them in the first place. That leaves employees with two choices: pay for those services out of their own pockets or forgo them altogether. It's not a situation business owners want to put their people in, but they have no other choice, right? Well, there is a third option and it can be a win-win for both employers and health care brokers. I'm talking about discount benefit cards. By offering your clients a discount benefit card for free or at a reduced rate, you can set your own business apart from the competition and provide a valuable service for your clients. Discount benefit cards are not insurance. Instead, they provide the holders with discounts on services that their employer might not cover. For example, a dental card may provide holders with 10 percent to 50 percent off services such as fillings and cleanings from select dentists. In addition to dental, there are discount plans for vision screenings, glasses, certain prescriptions, hearing aids, vitamins, nutritional products and more. These cards can typically be used by all family members, have no limit on the number of times they can be used, have no exclusions for prior medical conditions, provide an immediate discount at the time of service, and involve no claim forms or long waiting periods. All it takes to offer your clients a discount card is a little time, some legwork and a bit of an investment. For years I have made my company stand out by providing excellent customer service and extra HR services at no cost to the client. But while this provided me with an edge over my competition, something was missing. Then one day it dawned on me: I was taking great care of the employer by offering free HR services, but I wasn't giving the employees much besides being there to answer coverage questions and resolving claim issues. After much thought, I decided to offer a discount benefit card to all of my clients' employees and their families at no cost to them. To start, I purchased a vision card that provided reduced pricing on vision screenings and glasses. It was a big hit. About a year later I decided to add a discount legal plan. After researching various options I found the cost too expensive. So I took the best of what I found, brought the information to a lawyer friend and the two of us created our own plan just for my clients. Again, another big hit. >> I have since added discount plans for hearing screenings and hearing aids, prescription drugs, and health and wellness plans. This is all something any broker can do. If you decide to offer a discount benefit card for your clients, here are a few things you should consider: Look for one card that has all of the services bundled together instead of making employees carry around multiple cards for different discounts. The cost of each card should be less than $10 a month. The provider network should be large enough to meet the needs of the card holders. Make sure there are a number of reputable providers in your area so the holders have an adequate choice. Shop around for the most comprehensive package and the best discounts. Not surprisingly, my offer of a free discount benefit card to all of my clients has been met with rave reviews. While there is certainly a cost to me for providing this card, my business has flourished. Not only has it changed the way my clients and prospects look at my company, it's also boosted my employee's morale. Why? Because my salespeople land seven out of 10 prospects they approach, partly because of the free discount benefit card I provide. I wish I could tell you that the days of benefit reduction are ending, but unfortunately that's just not the case. If anything, the costs are only going to go higher and the pressure on companies to cut expenses will only grow more intense. And since providing a good benefits package remains integral to attracting and retaining good employees, it's more important than ever for companies to find creative ways of providing benefits. My advice: go find out what benefits your clients' employees lack and then put together a package that will address their needs. By offering a discount benefit card to your clients for free or at a reduced rate you can offer a solution to a client's problem. When it comes to marketing your business, there aren't many strategies more powerful than that.

Russ Carlson is president of BeneServ Corporate Benefit Services, a corporate-benefits brokerage firm serving companies throughout the Philadelphia region. Carlson can be reached at 1-800-925-3030 or [email protected].

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