The group insurance market shows real promise, but most carriers are still trying to determine the best path forward. Moving from being in a quiet sector to the front lines of new ways of doing business has shaken the industry and confronted it with challenges – and opportunities – that many could not have foreseen even a decade ago.
For starters, let’s take a look at where the market is right now. Three recent trends, in particular, are having a profound impact:
- The Affordable Care Act, which has led health carriers to increase their focus on non-major medical aspects of the parts of their business that the legislation has not affected. In turn, this has led to intensifying competition.
- Consumerism, which has resulted largely from workers’ increasing responsibility for choosing their own benefits. This has created disruption as employees/consumers have become increasingly dissatisfied with the gap between group insurance service, information and advice and what they have come to expect from other industries.
- The aging distribution force, which means that experienced brokers/agents are leaving the work force and are being replaced by inexperienced producers at decreasing rates or are not being replaced at all.
Group players – which historically have been conservative in their market strategies – focus on aggressively driving profitable growth. To do this, they are concentrating on four key areas: 1) growing their voluntary business, 2) streamlining their operating models, 3) re-shaping their distribution strategies and 4) making significant investments in technology.
Group insurance is no longer a quiet sector of the industry but instead is in the front lines of developments in customer-centricity and technological innovation.
Growing the voluntary business – The voluntary market has been of interest to traditional group insurance carriers for more than two decades, but the success of the core employer paid group insurance business has resulted in a lack of robust voluntary capabilities. However, with employers shifting more costs to employees, voluntary products have become a key way to manage group benefit costs while expanding the portfolio of employee products.
Some carriers are expanding their voluntary businesses by offering a modified employer paid group product in which the employee “checks the box” to pay an incremental premium and receive additional group coverage (e.g., long term disability (LTD), life and dental). Other carriers are exploring models where employees can sign up for an individual policy at a special premium rate. The former example is a traditional voluntary product, while the latter example is a traditional worksite product. For most carriers, adding the traditional voluntary product is fairly straightforward because it is still a product that the group underwrites. However, more carriers are looking into the worksite product (which AFLAC and Colonial Life & Accident have executed particularly well) because, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, some see a potential opportunity to reach small businesses that previously may not have been interested in group benefits.
Streamlining operating models – Group carriers also are trying to develop streamlined, cost-effective, customer-centric operating models. The traditional group insurance operating model has been built around product groups such as group LTD, short-term LTD, dental, etc. However, the product-based model is inefficient because it increases service costs, slows speed to market and fails to support the holistic views of the customer that enables carriers to serve customers in the ways they prefer.
Group insurers are now investing both time and capital to understand how to remove inefficient product-focused layers of their operations and streamline their processes to profitably grow. Many have focused on enrollment, which cuts across products and is a frequent source of frustration for everyone. Carriers are frustrated because they can spend days and weeks trying to ensure that everyone is properly enrolled in the right plan. Moreover, what should be a fairly straightforward, automated process often can require considerable manual intervention to ensure that employees are properly enrolled. In the meantime, employees are frustrated with recurring requests for information and the slowness of the enrollment process. Employers are frustrated by the additional time and effort that they have to expend and the poor enrollee experience. Producers become frustrated because the employer often holds them accountable for the recommended carriers’ performance.
Reshaping distribution strategies – In terms of distribution, private exchanges initially promised to connect group carriers with the right customers using extremely efficient exchange platforms. As a result, many group carriers joined multiple exchanges expecting that this model would put them on the cusp of the next wave of growth. However, success has proven more elusive than they expected, largely because they’ve spread themselves too thin across too many, often unproven exchanges. And, while private exchanges still offer great potential, many carriers have now begun to rethink their private exchange strategies with the realization that the channel is not yet a fully mature group insurance platform.
Investing in technology – Whether group carriers are focusing most on entering the voluntary market, streamlining operations or refining their private exchange strategies, successful in all these areas depends on technology. Group technology investments have lagged behind the rest of the industry. The reasons for this range from a lack of proven technology solutions that truly focus on the group market to downright stinginess and the resulting reliance on “heroic acts” and dedication of committed employees to drive growth, profits and customer satisfaction. However, viable technological solutions now exist – and they are probably the most critical element in the march toward effective data integration, efficient customer service and ultimately profitable growth. Every facet of the business –underwriting, marketing, claims, billing, policy administration, enrollment, renewal and more – is critically dependent upon technological solutions that have been designed to meet the unique needs of the group business and its customers. Prescient group carriers understand this and have been investing in developing their own solutions and partnering with on-shore and offshore solutions providers to fill gaps in non-core areas.
Whatever their primary focus – growth, operations or distribution – a necessary element for success is up-to-date and effective technology.
A market in flux
In conclusion, group insurance is in a time of transition. Major mergers and acquisitions have already started to reshape the market landscape, and existing players are likely to use acquisitions and divestitures as a way to refine their market focus. Moreover, new entrants are looking to exploit openings in the group space by providing the kind of focus, cutting-edge product offerings and service capabilities that many incumbents have not. These developments show group’s promise. The winners will be the companies that wisely refine their business models and effectively employ technology to meet the unique needs of new, consumer-driven markets.
- We will continue to see group carriers focus on the voluntary market, especially traditional group-underwritten products. They will look to not only round out their product bundle by providing solutions that meet consumer needs, but also integrate their offerings with other employee solutions like wealth and retirement products.
- Group insurers will continue to aggressively streamline processes to promote productive and profitable customer interactions.
- Private exchange participation strategy needs to align with target markets goals, including matching products with appropriate exchanges. Focusing on participation means that group carriers avoid spreading themselves too thin trying to support the various exchanges (often with manual back-end processes).
- Group carriers can no longer compete with antiquated and inadequate technology. Fortunately, there are now group-specific solutions that can make modernization a reality, not just an aspiration.