Kassi O'Brien is a benefitconsultant with Managed Benefits, Inc.

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Kassi O'Brien is a benefit consultant with Managed Benefits,Inc., a privately owned consulting firm serving the Mid-Atlanticstates and beyond. Expertise and customer service have always been thefoundation of the organization, and a client-centered focuscontinues to guide their future.

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Paul Wilson: How did you get your start in the benefitsindustry?

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I started out of college working as an industrial engineer andthen moved into cost accounting, so my foundation was veryanalytical and numbers-oriented. I moved into the benefits arenawith the onset of the ACA. I was brought into a small agency to doall their 1094 and 1095 reporting. During the first year,I had no clue about benefits outside those I received from myemployer, but I filed about 4,000 forms in 2013. I realized I had aknack for it; you really have to understand eligibility dates,affordable coverage, the percentage of incomeand safe harbor. It was a baptism by fire.

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Related: Succession planning: Begin with the end inmind

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PW: How has your career path shaped you?

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I'm an outsider to the industry, and I look at that as a hugepositive. Because of my industrial engineering background, I'malways asking “Why are we doing this? Does this make sense?” Istarted questioning early on, exploring ideas and trying to figureout different ways to help clients.

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I got a lot of pushback in the past, but joined ManagedBenefits, where they have a strong self-funding background. They'vebeen in business for 28 years and have been self-funding the wholetime. I had an opportunity to work with people who knew thatbusiness and who were willing to implement new ideas.

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PW: What are your thoughts on self-funding and otherstrategies we're seeing. Will they become morepopular?

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I think in Richmond and outskirts, we're going to see a hugepush in the next few years. D.C. is part of my territory, and whenI'm with a prospect and bring up self-funding or level-funding,they've been introduced to it. Probably about 80 percent of thetime, they're currently utilizing it. In Richmond, it's completelythe opposite. When I bring it up there, people are not familiar andprobably only 10 percent are currently using it.

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But I think this is changing. Richmond is incredibly young, hasan entrepreneurial vibe and the tech industry is very big here. Thedemographics in that industry skew much younger, and they are openand often interested in trying something different. When youexplain it, they get it very quickly.

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PW: So it's not just younger brokers who are embracingthese strategies, but the younger employers as well.

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Right. I don't know if you've read the book “The Tipping Point”by Malcolm Gladwell, but I feel like that's where we are in theindustry. Something has to change. Owners and CFOs are seeing thatthey're in the business of health care—it's the second or thirdline item for them. During the recession, they adopted a leanoperating model and reduced costs where they could, but this is oneplace they just didn't know how. But innovative brokers are nowcoming and showing them how they can have control.

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PW: When people aren't familiar with these strategies,what are the main objections you're hearing?

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I think it's different, depending on which market segment you'rein. In the mid-market segment, CFOs and owners often see it as newand risky. Just last week, I introduced a level-funded arrangementto a prospect. It would have produced significant savings, but Igot an email that said he sees the benefit, but isn't ready to takethat risk yet.

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In the large market, 200+ lives, I think they're a littlequicker to adopt. They typically have an HR director who is readingarticles and talking to their counterparts, who's been introducedto it. There has to be effort on the part of the employer andemployee. If we continue with the mindset of “We're not going to doanything different; I don't want extra work,” then there are veryfew options to contain cost.

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HR is a part of the discussion and the decision, and their jobis to attract and retain talent and keep employees happy. So whenemployees aren't happy because they have to turn in more paperwork,for example, it's easier for HR to push back and say, “I can't hireanyone because of this,” especially as our labor markettightens.

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PW: How do you maintain a balance between the data andthe human side of the industry?

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I have two children, a husband, and a mom who is going throughstage 4 cancer right now, so I have been affected personally by theproducts I'm selling and implementing into groups. You can look atit from a pure numbers standpoint, which is where my mind goes, butthere's also a very emotional side to buying health care. At theend of the day, that's the most important thing for mostpeople.

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If I go into a blue-collar industry and I'm putting in a $6,000HSA, the numbers look great. But I have to ask “How is this goingto affect your employees?” Most people are living paycheck topaycheck, so this would bankrupt them. So it's definitely atwo-sided conversation; it's not as easy as just looking at aspreadsheet.

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PW: Do you think the industry is collaborating more asyounger brokers try new things and need more feedback and guidancefrom peers?

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I feel that what we're doing is for a greater good. We seehealth care costs are crippling the middle-income family and Ireally want to help others. Maybe it's because many in mygeneration grew up service-minded. I also think our communitieshave become more service-minded. Yes, we still need to make aliving, but we're also trying to affect the market and fixsomething that's really broken.

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PW: How can the industry do a better job of attractingmore women and young, innovative consultants?

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It's interesting you ask that, because I was at a renewalmeeting the other day and I looked around the table. The executivedirector, the CFO, the HR director and myself were all female. AndI stopped for a moment and actually said, “This never happens.” Itwas a good feeling.

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I think to attract younger people, it comes down to theexcitement in our industry and the ways we can create change. I'veheard older brokers say, “It is what it is.” As I said before, ourgeneration grew up with more of a community-service mentality.Helping others along with the excitement and innovation in theindustry will bring a younger crowd. I think those ideas will alsospeak to a more predominantly female crowd, too.

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PW: Do you ever feel like being a female in thisindustry has created extra challenges or that you're perceived in acertain way, or are we getting past that point?

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When you initially walk into a room and you're young and female,you have a double whammy against you. But once I open a meeting andshow my worth, that goes out the window and they see the value Ibring to the table.

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PW: What are your favorite things about yourjob?

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We work with a lot of non-profits. It's great saving money foranyone, but especially for them. They're in our community andhelping to improve it, so when I can get them more and make thingsbetter for their employees, it touches you on a different level.They're going to be able to fund initiatives that they otherwisemight not have been able to fund.

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PW: How much attention do you pay to politics, mergersand that stuff?

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With the political climate and the reforms going on, Idefinitely pay attention. But I'm very slow to send that out to myclients. I feel like that changes day to day, week to week, tweetto tweet. As far as all the mergers go, I think it's a reallyinteresting time, especially with health care acquiring pharmacies.I'm just watching and reading to see where it goes. We've neverseen this before, so I don't know what to expect. It comes up inrenewal discussions and I let them know what's going on, but I feellike no one is too focused on those mergers right now.

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PW: Finish this sentence. The key to success in thisindustry going forward is…

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Research and openness to change.

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Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson is the editor-in-chief of BenefitsPRO Magazine and BenefitsPRO.com. He has covered the insurance industry for more than a decade, including stints at Retirement Advisor Magazine and ProducersWeb.