ECBM: Transparency in purchasing benefits, the time has come

The employee benefit procurement process, sometimes called marketing, has changed little over the past 25 years. This continues to frustrate many organizations looking for transparency, and potential cost savings, when procuring life, disability stop loss, dental, vision or pharmacy benefit management coverage.

Formal Requests for Proposals (RFP) may travel by email, but the underlying process is the same; insurance carriers simply send an image of the paper proposal that they would have dropped off years prior. The interpretation, presentation and, most importantly, negotiations haven’t changed, says Matthew R. Huttlin, vice president in the Employee Benefits Division at ECBM.

Almost a decade ago, a major insurance scandal in New York uncovered bid-rigging and anti-competitive activity within the opaque procurement process.

“The industry agreed to reform and become more transparent, which they did to some extent, but procurement activity remains a bit of a ‘black box’ process that continues today,” Huttlin says.

Smart Business spoke with Huttlin about the future of employee benefits procurement — a reverse auction.

What problems still exist today?

The process is clearly still antiquated and fraught with opportunities for mistakes. Business owners often negotiate without solid documentation. Broker/consultants, as well as their clients, continue to see proposal mistakes, missed deadlines, inaccurate proposals and presentation revisions.

Also, insurance carriers market to their strengths, as opposed to conforming to client requirements, which may lead to misinformation, more work, mistakes and increased costs.

How can business owners better obtain employee benefit coverage lines?

An online version of a reverse auction, or Dutch auction, cuts to the heart of the problem by introducing technology to the process while maintaining the business owner’s control of the outcome. This type of auction works opposite of a normal auction — instead of bidding up the price of an item, the auction bids the price down.

What are the benefits of this method?

This process is:

  • Prescriptive — RFPs are standardized, specifying the client requirements. Carriers respond using pre-determined plan specifications.
  • Efficient — Carriers get complete, consistent data on which to act with agreed upon timelines.
  • Transparent — Clients receive documentation on every step from the initial offers to the final pricing.
  • Effective — The online system delivers the RFP to more markets, garnering more accurate quotes that are immediately posted for analysis.

How exactly does this reverse auction work?

There are four phases to the procurement. In the RFP development/submission phase, the RFP is placed on a secure website under a standardized format and peer reviewed to ensure accuracy. Once released, carriers are notified to go to the website to obtain all of the relevant information to prepare their proposal.

During the technical evaluation/initial-pricing phase, carriers post proposals into the system for evaluation. The broker/consultant reviews the vendor confirmations and deviations to the requested scope of services, confirming plan design features, alternatives and administrative capabilities. The carrier also posts its initial pricing.

Then, all carriers receive feedback as to their ranking by their initial pricing in the financial evaluation/secondary-pricing phase. Actual rates aren’t shared. Over the course of a set period, usually two days, carriers can revise their pricing offers. Every time a new offer is submitted, all carriers are notified of the new ranking order.

Once the financial evaluation is complete, clients review the detailed results in the evaluation/selection phase. This review can include finalist presentations, site visits, etc. The client maintains full control over the selection process. Business owners aren’t required to select the lowest bid, but rather the carrier that best fits their requirements.

This high-tech approach is an efficient and effective way to handle procurement that provides accurate, transparent and documented results while driving prices down in a timely fashion.

Matthew R. Huttlin is a vice president of the Employee Benefits Division at ECBM. Reach him at 610-668-7100, ext. 1312, or [email protected].

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