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Transparency Does Not End with Providers and Insurers – Benefits Brokers Are Next

On a sunny October day in 2004, I was expecting a phone call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who wanted to discuss the latest practices of insurance brokers steering their clients to higher-commissioned products. At the time, I was operating my employee-benefits consulting organization, assisting Iowa employers by obtaining and servicing their employee benefit plans. For the record, since October 2011, I no longer practice as a benefits consultant.

During 2004, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a civil lawsuit against insurance broker Marsh & McLennan, alleging it rigged bids and steered business to insurers who paid enticing commissions, even if the product and insurance company were not in the client’s best interest. It was a scandal that rocked the industry that I was part of at that time.

How this New York reporter became aware of my organization was somewhat of a mystery to me. She did mention that our website was ‘dripping’ with language that suggested “complete independence” from “outside influence” and that “we act in our clients’ best interest – always.” From her perspective, I presumed, maybe we were indirectly referring to activities in our industry that bordered being nefarious. She wanted to learn more.

Our firm, when possible, avoided such contracts with insurance vendors because our desire was to be paid directly by our clients. Unfortunately, for many of our smaller employer clients, insurers would not segregate commissions from the premiums they paid, so we accepted the commission but voluntarily shared with the client the amount we received on their behalf.

Cash and gifts quietly given to insurance brokers and consultants by vendors – in exchange for business – may create a conflict-of-interest that adversely impacts the ‘independent’ guidance employer clients expect to receive from their advisors. During that time, voluntary reporting of commissions and bonuses were seldom being practiced by others – both locally and nationally.

Unfortunately, the WSJ interview never happened as an unexpected priority required my immediate attention at the time.

Fast forward to now.

The $900 Million Stimulus Bill – Includes Broker Transparency Provision

Buried deep in the 5,593-page $900 million stimulus package that was signed into law on December 27 is a little-known provision that impacts the aforementioned conflict-of-interest issues. For brokers, consultants and employers, this provision can be found on page 4475, Section 202 BB of the stimulus package. I learned of this provision from a ProPublica article (January 6), aptly titled: “Lavish Bonus? Luxury Trip? Health Benefits Brokers Will Have to Disclose What They Receive from the Insurance Industry.” The title says it all.

Author Marshall Allen, whom I have corresponded with in the past, has written quite a bit about this subject. In fact, his 2019 article prompted senators to propose legislation that requires disclosure of such perks and payments. This legislation was never enacted until now.

Brokers – and Employers – Take Note

The provision requires brokers and consultants to share with their employer clients (in writing) the various forms of direct or indirect compensation they receive from vendors associated with the health plan purchased by the employer. Further, the disclosures must take place at the time the employer enters into the agreement with the broker/consultant – or when the plan is renewed. This requirement also includes brokers who sell individual health insurance coverage.

Additionally, any service provider acting as a consultant who reasonably expects to receive direct or indirect compensation relating to the development of the following services must also comply:

  • Plan design
  • Insurance or insurance product selection (including vision and dental)
  • Record-keeping
  • Medical management
  • Benefits selection
  • Stop-loss insurance
  • Pharmacy benefit management services
  • Wellness design and management services
  • Transparency tools
  • Group purchasing organization agreements and services
  • Participation in and services from preferred vendor panels
  • Disease management
  • Compliance services
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Third party administration services

The disclosure section of this stimulus package applies to a producer or entity expecting to receive more than $1,000 in direct or indirect compensation for selling or administering to ‘employer-sponsored health plans’ and ‘enrollees in plans on the individual market.’

Conclusion

The delivery and payment of healthcare is fraught with many incentives and disincentives that drive appalling behaviors, causing costs to soar. As a benefits consultant, I was a big proponent of disclosing any renumerations we received to each affected client. Philosophically, this behavior is similar to expecting hospitals, physicians and insurance companies to reveal the negotiated prices of medical services.

Brokers and consultants owe it to their clients to be open with how they are being compensated by various sources to assure the client is being properly (and ethically) served at all times. This behavior cements trust and can promote a strong bond between the buyer and seller.

It is simply the right thing to do.

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