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November 13, 2014

A Wakeup Call for Benefits Brokers

Summary:

The Aetna acquisition of bswift shows that the rules of the game are changing -- and you don't get to make the rules.

Photo Courtesy of City of Olathe

More news from the technology front: Aetna acquires bswift. , shortly after Hodges-Mace announced the purchase of SmartBen. Last year, it was Towers Watson buying Liazon. Next year, it will be someone else. Is this just beginning of the dance where everyone in employee benefits needs to choose a partner? What does this mean for the benefits market and the benefits broker?

For some, the Aetna acquisition of bswfit may be strange. Aetna buys a company that provides technology that is used by its competitors and that handles enrollment for many employers that don’t have Aetna insurance. Similarly, Towers Watson bought a company whose products and services are distributed by its competitors, other brokers.

What most people aren’t realizing is that the world has changed. If you view this acquisition in the old world, where competitors don’t work together, you may see it one way, but in a new world it may look a little different — in many industries, companies that compete in one segment may be partners in another.

My message to brokers on this is to start thinking differently. Those who don’t will get left behind. The rules of the game are changing, and you don’t get to make all the rules.

I have been fortunate to have worked in some capacity with Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, and Rich Gallun, CEO of bswift. Both are outside-the-box thinkers. Aetna has invested billions in technology preparing for what it views as a consumer-centric healthcare model. Aetna wants to reinvent the patient experience. To quote Bertolini, “We’re going to begin to change the healthcare industry by giving people tools they can put in the palm of their hand.”

Here is another quote from Bertolini that would make brokers pause. When asked about the future of healthcare, Bertolini responded: “There wouldn’t be plan designs. You wouldn’t need them. What you would do is invest in all those things that are necessary to keep people healthy.” You can see a full overview of the Aetna model by viewing this presentation from its 2013 investor conference.

Some may see the bswift acquisition as a benefits enrollment platform for Aetna. But I see this as another step by Aetna to execute on a plan to compete effectively in a new healthcare world. A world where consumers are in more control. Where provider systems are engaged in a patient’s wellness and not just proving treatment after the fact. Where health information and communication is moved via Web and mobile.

Bswift made a strategic move into the consumer-centric world through private exchange technology, with individual rating and decision support tools. Now it has paid off. This made bswift attractive to Aetna. Congratulations to bswift for a job well done.

So what does this mean for benefits brokers?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article titled “Does Apple’s HealthKit signal the end of employer-based insurance?” Some may not relate Apple’s investment to the Aetna acquisition of bswift; however, I think they are related. Apple is clearly one of the top consumer technology vendors in the market. Aetna is driving consumer-centric healthcare. They are pieces of the same puzzle. It is a puzzle benefits brokers need to pay attention to because the market is changing around them. A carrier buying an enrollment vendor says one thing, Aetna’s and Apple’s investments mean something different.

The healthcare world is changing in a way that most brokers are not recognizing. Consumer-centric; mobile; doctors as wellness facilitators; employers out of the risk business? Maybe. So get ready.

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About the Author

Joe Markland is president and founder of HR Technology Advisors (HRT). HRT consults with benefits brokers and their customers on how to leverage technology to simplify HR and benefits administration.

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