There are a lot of stakeholders in the health care reform debate. Patients. Doctors, hospitals and other providers. Insurers. Employers. And so on. One often overlooked group with a great deal at stake in the current reform effort are health insurance brokers, especially those whose practices focus in the individual and small employer market segments. Today they provide some of the services expected of an exchange, helping to translate benefit plans into understandable options. Professional brokers go further, helping health care coverage shoppers find the plans that best fit their unique needs and then assisting them in gaining the benefits they’ve paid for.
The bad news is the media all but ignores the role of agents in the system. They focus on how confusing health care coverage can be (and it certainly can be opaque) and how consumers are at a disadvantage when dealing with their insurers (and they are) without once mentioning the counselors and advocates available to them: professional brokers. (Note added 5/9/09: An Associated Press article published today proves the point: it looked at the positions of the “10 groups with the mostinfluence, or most at stake, in the health debate…” Health insurance brokers were not mentioned.)
The good news is that lawmakers involved in drafting health care reform legislation are aware of brokers and what we do. They’ve sought out the National Association of Health Underwriters (the primary professional organization representing health insurance brokers) for testimony and input.
A seat at the table is great, but eventually brokers needs to justify their value to the system to those who live and work beyond the Beltway. If the media and public are unaware of what brokers do lawmakers can ignore agents with impunity. Which is why NAHU is launching a grassroots campaign to educate decision makers and opinion leaders to show why brokers “can’t be replaced by a government-run call center.” Core to this intitiative is a white paper focused on the value of licensed producers. Titled “Americans Deserve Access to Professionally Licensed and Trained Health Insurance Agents, Brokers and Consultants,” the report describes the various services producers provide to consumers and how they compare to alternatives such as government call centers.
The challenge facing brokers is that we are, at the end of the day, overhead. We don’t heal the sick. We don’t deliver medication. But that doesn’t mean professional producers aren’t valuable. Whether health care in America is managed by private enterprises or government agencies, there’s more to health care than stethoscopes and MRIs.
The NAHU white paper does an excellent job of laying out the important role producers play in helping Americans get the most out of their health care coverage. For instance, it cites a study by the Center for Studying Health System Change that noted “In contrast to the notion that brokers merely make insurance more costly, these findings suggest brokers can provide important benefits to small employers, plans and policy makers.”
This sentiment is echoed by the Congressional Budget Office, cited in the NAHU report, which concluded that, especially in the individual and small group market segments, producers “handle the responsibilities that larger firms generally delegate to their human resources departments — such as finding plans and negotiating premiums, providing information about the selected plans, and processing enrollees.” In fact, the CBO recommends that “because many small firms and individuals may find brokers’ services valuable, policymakers might consider allowing such services to be used in conjunction with [a buy-in option to FEHBP].”
Too often those policymakers look at health care too narrowly. The technology sector shows how misguided this can be. In his book Marketing High Technology, venture capitalist William Davidow describes the difference between a “device” and a “product.” A device, in an IT context, is a piece of code or some hardware. It’s what is invented in the laboratory. Products, however, goes beyond that. “A product is the totality of what a customer buys,” writes Mr. Davidow. “It is the … service from which the customer gets direct utility plus a number of other factors, services , or perceptions, which makes the product useful …” (emphasis added).
Medical care is obviously the core service (the equivalent of the “device”) when it comes to health care. Staying healthy or getting well is the ultimate goal. But the health care system is about far more than what happens in the doctors office or a hospital. It’s the development of new medications and devices, it’s healthy living education, and it’s the expertise provided by professional health insurance agents, brokers and consultants.
Health care reform is coming. That’s a good thing. In shaping what that reform accomplishes, lawmakers would do well to look at the system holistically — as a product, not just a device. That includes, as the NAHU white paper shows, acknowledging and preserving the value brokers provide to their clients.