2014 Power Broker

Winning the Benefits Battle

Health care reform led to late nights and intense demands on some Power Broker® winners.
By: | February 18, 2014 • 8 min read

Employees at the national headquarters of the American Legion Auxiliary liked their health insurance plan, but they weren’t able to keep it.

Like five million other plans, their health plan was cancelled last year, leaving the Indianapolis-based veterans services organization scrambling to cover its employees.

“Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield did away with all of their small group policies and made new ones,” said Donna Parrott, HR director of the nonprofit organization.

Fortunately for the group, they had Kevin Wiskus, an executive vice president at the Hays Cos., to protect their interests.

Wiskus, a 2014 Power Broker® winner in the Employee Benefits category, was able to find a plan that — ever mindful of the nonprofit organization’s fiscal constraints — reduced the organization’s health plan costs by about 10 percent, Parrott said.

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Wiskus was an area vice president at Gallagher Benefit Services when he put together a benefits solution for the American Legion Auxiliary. And, said Parrott, “it was about 16 percent cheaper than what Anthem recommended.”

“He goes above and beyond,” she said. “We are a small group but he doesn’t treat us as a small group. You would think we were his only client the way we get that personal touch.”

Going above and beyond is emblematic of Power Broker® winners in 2014 — and not just those focused on employee benefits plans.

But while Superstorm Sandy focused attention last year on the Power Brokers specializing in property, this year, it’s the Affordable Care Act that is taking center stage.

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Employee benefits consultants and brokers have had to find ways to dig through 11,000 pages of regulations — regulations that have been changed at the last minute — and excavate the necessary information to protect their clients.

As individuals struggled to sign up via poorly functioning online sites and health care carriers fretted about an adverse risk pool, brokers and consultants stepped in to find solutions.

“It’s creating a lot more work for us as consultants to make sure our clients are following all the laws, and making them aware of the taxes and additional costs to them,” said Kim Clark, an account director at Gallagher Benefit Services.

“I am hopeful that 2014 is easier than 2013,” she said. “I can’t imagine it getting harder than it was this past year.

“The carriers had to make changes to every single one of their plans for Jan. 1. Even if employers didn’t want to change their health plans, there were plan changes because of health care reform,” said Clark, a 2014 Power Broker® in the Employee Benefits category.

Transitioning Plans

A survey of health insurance brokers by Morgan Stanley found that quarterly-reported year-over-year rates in December 2013 were rising in excess of 6 percent in the small group market, and 9 percent in the individual market, according to an article in Forbes by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

It is the largest reported increase since the firm started its quarterly surveys of brokers in 2010, he wrote. “Much of the rate increases are attributable to Obamacare.”

Deb Mangels,  Senior Vice President, ABD Insurance and Financial Services

Deb Mangels,
Senior Vice President,
ABD Insurance and Financial Services

Thanks to Deb Mangels, senior vice president at ABD Insurance and Financial Services, the results were much more positive — and affordable — at the Piedmont Unified School District.

“It’s been an amazing year for us. We have transitioned our health care plans and it’s so much more than we have had,” said Michael Brady, assistant superintendent of the district, which employs more than 360 teachers, administrators and support staff in six schools near Oakland, Calif.

Mangels, a 2014 Public Sector Power Broker®, transitioned the district’s employee coverage from a health benefits pool with unsustainable cost increases to its own carrier at the same time the district was instituting its first medical benefits cap and increased premiums, following some “very intense labor negotiations,” Brady said.

“They reworked all of the plans,” negotiated a 15-month plan year so all plans would be on the same cycle, and added an online open enrollment tool. For the same benefits as the pool plan, the district’s employees pay about $100 less each month in premiums, he said.

Plus, employees have the option of choosing among some plan options related to copay and deductibles that were not available in the pool.

“I have never felt that we were in a better place than we are right now,” Brady said.

Communication is Key

When one HR director for an oil and gas drilling services company was holding employee meetings to discuss the introduction of a high-deductible plan, she faced resistance.

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The materials she used to illustrate the changes were hampering her ability to clearly explain to employees and to foreign corporate parents the company’s new health benefit plans and options.

That’s when she called James Bernstein, a principal at Mercer and a 2014 Employee Benefits Power Broker® — at midnight that night. He’s the consultant she counts on to keep his eye on both the big picture and the gritty details necessary to keep her organization in compliance and on top of everything.

By the time she woke up in the morning, Bernstein had prepared and sent her a new set of PowerPoint slides that offered more clarity on the health benefit plans.

“I really couldn’t do this without him,” said the HR director. “I’ve got 10 balls in the air, and he will make sure I don’t drop one of them.”

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Effective communication tools and strategies are a crucial part of plan design changes, said Robert Ditty, a partner at Mercer, and a 2014 Employee Benefits Power Broker®.

“You can design a plan until you are blue in the face but if people don’t understand it, you will not get the results you want,” he said.

 Consumerism Takes Hold

Many plan design changes took place this year with his clients, Ditty said, because employers needed to make changes due to the ACA anyway. As a result, they opted to move ahead with some strategic alternatives that had been under consideration for a while.

One popular option among his mid-size and large company clients was the transition to a high-deductible health plan, coupled with health savings accounts and health reimbursement accounts.

The health care reform law “made people re-evaluate … and it really expedited that strategy for a substantial portion of clients.”

Analyzing and strategizing around health benefits isn’t going to end any time soon.

Robert Ditty Partner, Mercer, Atlanta

Robert Ditty
Partner,
Mercer, Atlanta

Ditty’s clients are already trying to prepare for a substantial excise tax that kicks in in 2018. That tax — which requires employers to pay a 40 percent tax on health care costs that exceed federally defined thresholds — is better known as a penalty on so-called Cadillac plans. He said, however, that thresholds imposed for the federal tax will fall on “employers who are not offering very generous or rich plans.”

Instead, as the regulations are now written, they will affect many employers who have older workers and higher health care costs. “A significant portion of my clients are projected to hit this threshold in 2018, and they don’t have rich plans,” Ditty said.

That tax will join the other taxes imposed this year on employers. All of these developments have made life interesting of late for employee benefits consultants — “interesting,” as in the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

 Budgetary Concerns

It was those additional fees imposed this year that forced Gallagher’s Clark to seek out different health plan designs for her clients.

The ACA-imposed taxes — either directly borne by employers or probably passed along as increased premiums because they are paid by health insurers — are the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute Fee (PCORI); a Marketplace User Fee that “could be almost 3 percent of their premium,” Clark said; a Transitional Reinsurance Program Assessment Fee; an Annual Health Insurance Industry Fee; and a Risk Adjustment Program and Fee.

Often, she said, employers had to change plan design “to help their budget to account for those additional costs.”

Also adding costs were some other requirements in the ACA, such as requiring pediatric dental benefits on all plans, even if the policyholders did not have children or their children were older than 18.

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One other wrinkle in the ACA, which is playing out in the courts, is the need for all plans to include contraception benefits. That offered a unique challenge for Jan Wigen, a principal at Mercer, who was working with a religious institution.

The faith-based organization, a Catholic college, refused to pay for the benefit. Wigen, a 2014 Employee Benefits Power Broker®, helped the college secure separate contraceptive coverage through an insurer without having to pay for it, itself. She then provided separate enrollment cards and communication tools so the college could comply with the law and employees could have the coverage, without administrators breaking the dictates of their faith.

That was a regulation that had a fairly limited employer impact, but there was plenty of fodder in the ACA for angst to be created among employers of all sizes and shapes — and their brokers as well.

“I can’t think of an employer I talked to or worked with,” Ditty said, “where the law is not driving them in many instances to be more proactive about how they manage their benefit programs. … They have really become progressive in what they are doing from a strategic standpoint.”

For those employers lucky enough to have Power Brokers as their consultants, the process will run a bit smoother and the results will likely be a bit better, even as the demands on them increase and the regulations continue to change.

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Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Alternative Energy

A Shift in the Wind

As warranties run out on wind turbines, underwriters gain insight into their long-term costs.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Wind energy is all grown up. It is no longer an alternative, but in some wholesale markets has set the incremental cost of generation.

As the industry has grown, turbine towers have as well. And as the older ones roll out of their warranty periods, there are more claims.

This is a bit of a pinch in a soft market, but it gives underwriters new insight into performance over time — insight not available while manufacturers were repairing or replacing components.

Charles Long, area SVP, renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

“There is a lot of capacity in the wind market,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy at broker Arthur J. Gallagher.

“The segment is still very soft. What we are not seeing is any major change in forms from the major underwriters. They still have 280-page forms. The specialty underwriters have a 48-page form. The larger carriers need to get away from a standard form with multiple endorsements and move to a form designed for wind, or solar, or storage. It is starting to become apparent to the clients that the firms have not kept up with construction or operations,” at renewable energy facilities, he said.

Third-party liability also remains competitive, Long noted.

“The traditional markets are doing liability very well. There are opportunities for us to market to multiple carriers. There is a lot of generation out there, but the bulk of the writing is by a handful of insurers.”

Broadly the market is “still softish,” said Jatin Sharma, head of business development for specialty underwriter G-Cube.

“There has been an increase in some distressed areas, but there has also been some regional firming. Our focus is very much on the technical underwriting. We are also emphasizing standardization, clean contracts. That extends to business interruption, marine transit, and other covers.”

The Blade Problem

“Gear-box maintenance has been a significant issue for a long time, and now with bigger and bigger blades, leading-edge erosion has become a big topic,” said Sharma. “Others include cracking and lightning and even catastrophic blade loss.”

Long, at Gallagher, noted that operationally, gear boxes have been getting significantly better. “Now it is blades that have become a concern,” he said. “Problems include cracking, fraying, splitting.

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“In response, operators are using more sophisticated inspection techniques, including flying drones. Those reduce the amount of climbing necessary, reducing risk to personnel as well.”

Underwriters certainly like that, and it is a huge cost saver to the owners, however, “we are not yet seeing that credited in the underwriting,” said Long.

He added that insurance is playing an important role in the development of renewable energy beyond the traditional property, casualty, and liability coverages.

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine. Weather risk coverage can be done in multiple ways, or there can be an actual put, up to a fixed portion of capacity, plus or minus 20 percent, like a collar; a straight over/under.”

As useful as those financial instruments are, the first priority is to get power into the grid. And for that, Long anticipates “aggressive forward moves around storage. Spikes into the system are not good. Grid storage is not just a way of providing power when the wind is not blowing; it also acts as a shock absorber for times when the wind blows too hard. There are ebbs and flows in wind and solar so we really need that surge capacity.”

Long noted that there are some companies that are storage only.

“That is really what the utilities are seeking. The storage company becomes, in effect, just another generator. It has its own [power purchase agreement] and its own interconnect.”

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine.”  —Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

Another trend is co-location, with wind and solar, as well as grid-storage or auxiliary generation, on the same site.

“Investors like it because it boosts internal rates of return on the equity side,” said Sharma. “But while it increases revenue, it also increases exposure. … You may have a $400 million wind farm, plus a $150 million solar array on the same substation.”

In the beginning, wind turbines did not generate much power, explained Rob Battenfield, senior vice president and head of downstream at JLT Specialty USA.

“As turbines developed, they got higher and higher, with bigger blades. They became more economically viable. There are still subsidies, and at present those subsidies drive the investment decisions.”

For example, some non-tax paying utilities are not eligible for the tax credits, so they don’t invest in new wind power. But once smaller companies or private investors have made use of the credits, the big utilities are likely to provide a ready secondary market for the builders to recoup their capital.

That structure also affects insurance. More PPAs mandate grid storage for intermittent generators such as wind and solar. State of the art for such storage is lithium-ion batteries, which have been prone to fires if damaged or if they malfunction.

“Grid storage is getting larger,” said Battenfield. “If you have variable generation you need to balance that. Most underwriters insure generation and storage together. Project leaders may need to have that because of non-recourse debt financing. On the other side, insurers may be syndicating the battery risk, but to the insured it is all together.”

“Grid storage is getting larger. If you have variable generation you need to balance that.” — Rob Battenfield, senior vice president, head of downstream, JLT Specialty USA

There has also been a mechanical and maintenance evolution along the way. “The early-generation short turbines were throwing gears all the time,” said Battenfield.

But now, he said, with fewer manufacturers in play, “the blades, gears, nacelles, and generators are much more mechanically sound and much more standardized. Carriers are more willing to write that risk.”

There is also more operational and maintenance data now as warranties roll off. Battenfield suggested that the door started to open on that data three or four years ago, but it won’t stay open forever.

“When the equipment was under warranty, it would just be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer,” he said.

“Now there’s more equipment out of warranty, there are more claims. However, if the big utilities start to aggregate wind farms, claims are likely to drop again. That is because the utilities have large retentions, often about $5 million. Claims and premiums are likely to go down for wind equipment.”

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Repair costs are also dropping, said Battenfield.

“An out-of-warranty blade set replacement can cost $300,000. But if it is repairable by a third party, it could cost as little as $30,000 to have a specialist in fiberglass do it in a few days.”

As that approach becomes more prevalent, business interruption (BI) coverage comes to the fore. Battenfield stressed that it is important for owners to understand their PPA obligations, as well as BI triggers and waiting periods.

“The BI challenge can be bigger than the property loss,” said Battenfield. “It is important that coverage dovetails into the operator’s contractual obligations.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]