With the arrival of the Affordable Care Act, some predicted thathealth insurance brokers serving the industry and small groupemployers would become obsolete. Despite predictions of demise,licensed agents are arguably more essential than ever.

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Related: Large employers still with employee health plans,small businesses another story

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This is particularly true for the small employer market. Infact, the need for these skilled professionals is actuallyaccelerating. A main driver of this is the critical functionbrokers play in making emerging marketplaces and platforms such asgovernment-run and private exchanges work in the first place.

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On the flip side is the growth and proliferation of privateexchange concepts, many of which use a defined contribution model.Current evidence suggests that these programs have the potential tobe bigger — and better — options for many American businesses andtheir workers.

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The report estimated that six million members enrolled in theirbenefits plan on a private exchange in 2015, nearly doublingnumbers from the previous year. Forecasts call for enrollment toreach as high as 22 million before 2018.

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Related: Most insurers sticking with PPACAexchanges

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It turns out that brokers, particularly those serving smallbusinesses, are crucial to many successful public and privateexchanges. That's because they serve on the front line providingquotes for coverage, explaining benefits to employees, problemsolving for owners or management and, most importantly, servicingthe business during the coverage year by providing ongoingsupport.

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The market now offers a vast selection of options that peoplegenerally find difficult to understand and differentiate. Thecomplicated changes in health care are actually doing more to drivesmall business groups toward brokers who are best equipped to meetthese challenging demands.

The evolving broker relationship

Brokers succeeding in today's environment of exchanges have abroader and more important role than ever. They no longer simplyenroll people in coverage. They help small employers and workersunderstand the intricacies of public and private exchanges entitiesas well as small business carrier options and how clients cannavigate them. Moreover, savvy agents now play an even larger rolein providing invaluableservices after enrollment.

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Related: Are private exchanges really the next bigthing?

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To address market demands, successful agents have everything togain by placing a renewed focus on six key roles defining therelationship between brokers and small businesses:

  • Consumerism gurus: Some believed theincrease of many new exchanges, technology platforms and onlineservices signaled the beginning of the end for the broker role. Butmore than ever, small businesses need a guide, a specialist, anadvocate and a problem solver to navigate the changing healthexchange and marketplace options that are becoming increasingsimilar to 401(k) offerings. In essence, employers need aconsumerism guru. In the midst of this change, the expert brokershines today, and will continue to do so within the small groupmarket.

  • Advisors to small groups: Small businessesrely on health benefits to attract and retain the best workers.Restauranteurs, hair stylists, and machinists are skilled in theirrespective industries, not health and employee benefits. They arefaced with the daunting task of finding the right coverage optionsat the right price to effectively meet the wide range of needs andrequirements for their diverse group of workers. Without the steadyhand of a professional advisor, the ability to zero in on optimalcoverage options can be a difficult journey.

  • Service providers: The ACA has been acatalyst for automating a variety of traditional broker functions,such as plan comparisons, enrollment, physician selection, andmore. But again, this trend is actually deepening the value ofskilled agents. There are a number of reasons why, but they alltrack back to one vital factor: service. Brokers who assistbusinesses in navigating health care reform offer tremendous value.They can help manage health care costs, keep up to date onregulatory requirements and changes, and assist with benefitsadministration and employee benefits education. They listen to theneeds of each business, match those needs to the best marketplaceoptions, provide quotes for coverage, and place the business withthe program that offer the best options.

  • Human interface: When it comes toidentifying and selecting the best health insurance coverage, thedevil really is in the details. Several years ago, anIBM-commissioned poll of 1,000 U.S. consumers found an overwhelmingpreference for personalized service and human interaction fromtheir insurance providers. While technology has enabled theseemingly overnight explosion of online insurance marketplaces,brokers who can deliver service support to their customers will winout in the long term. When it comes to customer service, nothingbeats face-to-face interaction that is timely, personalized andvaluable to clients. A broker offering to provide a human elementto their business is the leading preference of small company ownersand their employees.

  • Single point expert: Benefit specialistswho provide a single-point of contact to handle a multitude ofneeds and issues will win every time. Be the go-to expert forsolving problems or needs, vetting and recommending coverageoptions, and guiding workers through benefit claims processes. Thevalue of a single-source expert cannot be overstated. A good brokeris the point of contact for satisfying all of a small business’needs, whether it's health, life, dental, payroll or other benefitservices. Not having to deal with multiple vendors and contactssaves time, money and employer and worker sanity.

  • Entrusted problem solver: Brokers are alsoentrusted problem solvers. Few benefits are as important toemployers and their workers as health coverage. Small businessesare perhaps more acutely attuned to this, as they must try tocompete with their larger counterparts for talent in acost-effective manner. Putting one of the most important benefitdecisions into the hands of a professional who can be trusted tomake well-thought-out decisions on behalf of their clients iscrucial.

Moreover, brokers today are tasked with unscrambling some of themost tricky benefit coverage puzzles. Since they do not directlyrepresent a carrier, exchange, or marketplace, they are focused onserving client needs rather than selling to a specific (andoftentimes narrower) selection of plans. They sift through optionsand present the best, unbiased choices that match their client'semployer-worker needs. Their primary motivation is to serve, notsell.

A relevant future

Without a doubt, health care reform and government-sponsoredexchanges have accelerated consumer appetite around the idea ofchoosing the best coverage that works for them. But actually makingthe best decision without professional counsel or a well-designedprovider platform supported by strong broker and customer serviceis another thing altogether.

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In the end, business owners want and need professionals whooffer health care coverage expertise and know-how, and in turndeliver service with personal touch. This is where smart,knowledgeable and service-oriented brokers and employee benefitsspecialists will thrive, both today and in the future.

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