Amy Dison

Friday, 22 September 2006 08:05

Navigating the Web

In today’s world, people are no longer home to answer a telemarketer’s phone call at the dinner hour or to answer the door for a traveling salesperson. Instead, people look for information on the services they need when they have a free moment.

Ideally, a health plan’s Web site should provide clients with convenient access to that kind of information. The Web has become a vehicle for people who are looking to purchase a product or service, says Michael Taylor, executive director of marketing and communications for UPMC Health Plan.

Smart Business spoke with Taylor on what features make a Web site successful and how a health plan’s Web site can best serve the needs of its customers.

What features should employers look for in a health plan’s Web site?
First, a health plan’s Web site needs to be easy to use and navigate. This is true regardless of who uses it: a company executive, a benefits administrator, or a health plan member.

Health plan Web sites deliver different things to different audiences. Members may go to a health plan’s Web site for tips on how to get healthy and stay healthy. Or they may want an easy way to search for a prescription drug to see whether it is included on their health plan’s formulary. Others may look for a new primary care physician or specialist in their health plan’s network. They should be able do all of this quickly and easily on a Web site.

Members also like the convenience of being able to perform specific administrative tasks. These can include researching coverage options, reviewing an explanation of benefits (EOB), refilling a prescription, or replacing a lost ID card.

Benefits administrators want a Web site that enables them to quickly and easily enroll members, to issue terminations, or to access specific coverage and benefits information.

Some employers want extra online features such as access to aggregate health information about their work force that can be derived from online health assessment scores. Such information to offer relevant health improvement programs at the worksite. Web sites also should have the potential to grow and adapt to meet an employer’s changing needs.

What Web site features encourage the most usage?
Web sites that offer users interactive tools that track their progress with medications or measure their success in weight management programs often prove popular. These get the user to return to the Web site frequently. Employers like features of this type because they turn the Web site into a vehicle that encourages healthier lifestyles for employees.

How can a company get maximum value from a health plan’s Web site?
First, make sure your employees actually use it. That may require ‘marketing’ the Web site to your employees. Employer groups can ask for assistance from the health plan to set up an e-mail campaign and other types of communication.

The health plan can also do its part by including Web site information in the materials that it sends to all members. A company’s account management, enrollment and customer-service staffs should be versed in how to promote and explain the features of the plan’s Web site. During enrollment periods, they should be able to tell employees exactly what the Web site offers and explain to them how to use it.

Doctors within the health plan’s network can also be trained on the Web site so they can direct their patients to the site. This can be one of the most effective ways to increase usage.

How can a health plan’s Web site benefit an employer?
A health plan Web site should provide both employer and employees with access to trusted information in combination with easy-to-use administrative and health promotion tools that help demystify the complex world of health care. Using a health plan’s Web site should be convenient; that’s why finding all the information you want in one place is so important. Users do not need the hassle that comes from having to visit many different Web sites to find out information or to perform an administrative task. Using a health plan’s Web site should be a seamless experience for members.

How can an employer group be sure a health plan’s Web site protects a member’s information?
Many regulations that govern health plans ensure they protect a member’s personal health information. Security parameters are regulated by the federal government, and health plans should continually research and implement best-in-class security and privacy practices. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides guidelines on privacy and security standards for a health plan’s interaction with members.

MICHAEL TAYLOR is executive director of marketing and communications at UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh. Reach him at (412) 454-7534 or

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 12:39

A work/life balance

A common question to ask a successful business person is how he or she balances work and life. Although this question is difficult for many people to answer, companies are working to help employees maintain a better balance between work and life, which in turn helps increase productivity and satisfaction at work.

Creating ways for employees to find time to handle other priorities is crucial for increasing retention says Jason Skidmore, vice president of OfficeTeam’s Columbus Region.

Smart Business spoke with Skidmore about ways employers can help create a better balance for employees between work and life and how this balance can benefit a company.

How does this balance benefit the company as a whole?
Companies find that creating such a balance improves the productivity of their staff. Additionally, retention and morale improve when employees are more easily able to balance life priorities with those at work. Since stress can be a large contributor to illness and absenteeism and can also create a lack of enthusiasm in work, helping employees achieve a work/life balance is important to ensuring that staff is operating at peak performance.

All of these factors can affect a company’s bottom line. By supporting efforts to achieve work/life balance, companies are finding that employees feel more supported at work and confidant in the work that they do.

What steps can executives take to help employees create a work-life balance?
They might consider the option of bringing in additional employees on a full-time or a project basis. This can help reduce overtime and improve quality and productivity.

A flexible work schedule is one tool employers are using to provide balance and give people the ability to meet priorities they have outside of work, without compromising their work.

Telecommuting is another popular way people are able to create a work/life balance. If job requirements allow for this option, employees can take some of their work home. By giving an employee remote access to programs and systems out of the office, employers allow them to perform many of their duties at night after they have spent time with their families. Additionally, employees can utilize telecommuting at other times, like when at home caring for a sick child.

Job sharing is another option employers can implement. As more individuals seek out adjusted work schedules, some companies have found sharing job responsibilities between employees actually helps get the work finished. This creates better productivity while providing flexibility.

What risks should employers be aware of when offering these options to improve work/life balance?
Companies need to make sure they have the necessary security needed for such options. Remote access requires secure systems in employees’ homes and companies need to provide that security to ensure the safety of any data they are transmitting. Employers must also be confident in the employees to whom they are granting such access.

Metrics must be put in to place and be clearly defined to measure the productivity of employees working from remote locations or on an adjusted work schedule. Guidelines must be presented that define employee expectations. Additionally, employees and their supervisors should set aside time to review the effectiveness of working from a remote location.

Why is it important for companies to implement these changes if they have never considered them before?
Technological advancements have made a big difference in the way we do business. The presence of telecommuting is going to continue to increase in the future.

As the job market becomes more competitive, companies need to look at other types of incentives beyond compensation to attract skilled workers and the best employees. These options not only attract new employees but also help retain current employees. Many people with families look for businesses with these types of options so they can spend more time with their families.

How can executives decide what type of balance needs to be created?
Employers should get their employees’ perspective. Internal surveys can be used to figure out how a balance can be created. When done anonymously, these surveys tend to produce more honest — and valuable — answers.

Whether a company has provided adequate work/life balance can be an invaluable question to ask during exit interviews and also provide insight into what changes might be beneficial. Employers also can find out if they are falling behind their competition if this is listed as a reason someone is leaving the company. It is also effective to see what options competitors are providing for their employees. This information can be found through networking and can be used to attract employees in the industry.

JASON SKIDMORE is vice president of OfficeTeam’s Columbus Region. Reach him at (614) 221-9300.

Monday, 31 July 2006 12:05

Retaining line-level talent

Tampa has one of the 10 lowest unemployment rates in the nation while the region grows at one of the fastest rates. This combination has led to high demand for employees who can afford to be choosy about where they work. A recent survey has shown that between 75 percent and 85 percent of area employees are thinking about making a job change in the next year. Employers have more reasons than ever to take a good hard look at their benefits and compensation packages, according to Brent Short, managing director at Spherion Corp.

“Employees and potential employees are really shopping around right now, closely comparing benefits when considering a new job,” he says. “Now is the time for employers to take the blinders off and see what’s really going on in their organizations and assess their benefits and compensation against their competitors.”

Smart Business spoke with Short about ways in which employers can use benefits and compensation packages to recruit employees and how employers can benefit from working with a professional staffing firm.

How can employers best use their health care benefits to retain and recruit employees?
The two biggest issues right now are the cost of health plans and how quickly health care coverage will begin upon taking a new job. One thing employers can do is offer lower cost plans, or they can offer health care benefits starting with the employee’s first day on the job rather than making that employee wait 30, 60 or even 90 days before their health care benefits kick in. If it is necessary to maintain a waiting period, then employers can also consider paying the new employee’s COBRA costs to help ease that employee’s burden.

How do employers benefit by going the extra mile to retain their employees?
There are real costs associated with employee turnover, including the cost to replace and train employees as well as the human capital that is lost when an employee leaves. Employers who invest in their employees reap the benefits of low turnover.

How can employers benefit from the expertise of a professional staffing firm?
Professional staffing firms make it their business to know what’s happening in the market — what companies are offering what benefits, what companies have happy employees, and what companies have high or low turnover. We can help employers identify which benefits and perks their competition is offering and ways to improve their employee retention.

Perhaps the biggest benefit we offer is the ability to provide nonbiased third-party information about how employees and potential employees perceive a particular company as a place to work.

What are some creative fringe benefits employers can offer to help retain employees?
The single greatest request we hear from employees today is the need for more flexibility. More employees are seeking the opportunity to work from home, even if it’s just one or two days a week.

Employers can also provide more flexibility simply by encouraging their employees to take time off for vacation and make it possible for them to actually follow through and take the time without feeling guilty. Allowing flex time so employees can come in early and leave early to catch a child’s ball game or other personal activity also goes a long way toward creating a flexible work environment.

Some of the more creative benefits we see are tuition reimbursement and on-site day care facilities. The key for keeping today’s employees happy really comes down to working for a company that they feel provides them with a sense of work-life balance.

How can a company’s culture play a role in employee retention, and what can employers do to maintain a positive office culture?
I think it comes down to really listening to employees and getting a true sense of how they’re feeling and what they need to help them do their jobs better and be happier at work. This can be done in a variety of ways, including conducting regular meetings with company management and employees or conducting company surveys on a regular basis. Too often, companies get so focused on the day-to-day business that they lose touch with their employees, and problems that could be easily addressed will often spin out of control very quickly.

How important are salaries to retaining top employees, and how can employers ensure that their salaries are competitive?
Salaries are extremely important, especially in today’s environment where Tampa’s unemployment rate is down around 2.4 percent. Employers need to provide an attractive compensation and benefits package that can compete for new employees as well as ensure their current employees are content and happy so they won’t feel the need to look for a new job.

BRENT SHORT is managing director at Spherion Corp. Reach him at or (813) 864-1111.

Sunday, 30 July 2006 11:09

Corporate compliance

In a time of Enrons and Worldcoms, corporate regulations have never been so closely watched. The media sheds light on any company’s wrongdoing and the executives or employees who allowed it to happen.

Now, more than ever, companies need to design corporate compliance programs to provide protection and understanding of the values and goals for which the company stands. It is important for executives to do more than put their ideas on paper, says Neal Roach Jr., a member of the law firm Sommer Barnard PC. Companies have to figure out how to implement their plan in the company culture and live it daily.

Smart Business spoke with Roach about the protection compliance programs can offer and how executives can design a plan for their company.

What is a corporate compliance program?
A compliance program is the global picture of what the company does to ensure fulfillment of its obligations to the law. A compliance program is not a list of right and wrongs but is rather a reflection of the entire culture of the company.

The program designates someone within a company to be responsible for making sure all relevant laws and regulations are followed. This person must help create an everyday work culture in which compliance is emphasized.

The size of the company plays a major role in the size of the compliance program. The larger the company gets, the more likely it is that top executives are no longer going to know everything that is going on in the company. That is when more systematic controls need to be created. It is important for someone to have a handle on the system. They should develop and implement a procedure for how the company prevents violations and responds if the law is violated.

How does a corporate compliance program benefit a company?
There is a correlation between companies with well executed compliance programs and stock market prices. Companies with good programs perform well.

All U.S. companies are subject to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines say each company must have a compliance program in place. If a company has an effective compliance program, prosecutors and courts are more likely to give the company the benefit of the doubt if something does go wrong. With an effective program in place, regulators can see that the company has a culture of compliance, even if something has slipped through the cracks.

How does investing now in such a program save companies in the long run?
By investing in compliance, companies reduce their risk of settlements, fines and other repercussions. It is difficult to provide a concrete number because you cannot measure what you have avoided. Compliance is designed to prevent and detect violations of the law. Therefore, investing your program is analogous to purchasing insurance.

What steps need to be taken to implement a compliance program and create employee understanding?
Executives should start with a corporate code of conduct. This should state the company’s purpose and then go into specific details. This code should convey how the company does business.

Steps need to be taken within the organization to make sure all employees have an understanding of the goal the company is working toward. Training meetings, online courses and informal lunch-and-learn sessions can be used to present employees with this material.

Executives need to create the understanding among employees that violations are not acceptable and should be reported. A mechanism needs to be put in place so employees can report suspicions or violations without risking their own job. Many companies are using a hotline where a third party takes the call and gives it to the appropriate official in the office, making the entire process anonymous.

It is also beneficial to bring an outsider into your planning process. Lawyers can provide legal expertise for a plan. They bring an understanding of what aspects a plan must cover. An outsider provides a fresh set of eyes and can look at the plan to make sure all aspects have been covered.

Why should companies that have run successfully for years look into compliance programs?
It is important for executives to realize the business world has changed and compliance is more on the front burner for both regulators and the media. As a business grows, executives will have less control over who is hired and how they perform.

Companies that are already operating and have not had compliance problems have likely installed a good company culture. There is still a need to document how the company is in -- and intends to stay in -- compliance with the law.

NEAL ROACH JR. is a director and member of the Business Practice Group at Sommer Barnard PC. Reach him at (317) 713-3485 or

Friday, 30 June 2006 07:31

Stress in the workplace

Stress is a constant in a person’s daily life. While executives try to get the most for their money out of their employees and expect them to arrive to work focused on the task at hand, life happens and stress sometimes can not be avoided.

The cost of stress can be a financial burden that is often overlooked in the workplace when trying to find ways to cut costs. Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems, suggests executives find ways to manage employees’ stress to reduce financial strain.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about the cost of stress and ways for executives to help employees cope.

How does stress affect productivity in the workplace?
The economic consequences of stress in the workplace are alarming. Annually, stress costs U.S. employers $300 billion total, or $2,097 per employee. This cost is a result of medical claims, increased turnover, absenteeism, worker’s compensation, poor performance and lack of engagement.

Surprisingly, stress is not always a bad thing. It can stimulate creativity and productivity. No one reaches peak performance without some type of stress. Almost 8 percent of all annual claims costs are directly related to stress according to a study prepared by the Health Enhancement Research Organization reported 1998.

What stressors should employers be aware of in the workplace?
The level of occupational stress is determined by three dimensions: life situations, work and self. The balance between the causes of stress and available support systems determines one’s ability to cope effectively with stress.

Sources of stress vary. For factory workers, stress often is related directly to the work situation such as the equipment or environment. Office workers, on the other hand, are more likely to experience stress related to inter-personal relationships on the job.

Workload is the greatest reported cause of stress. Employees work today the equivalent of a 13-month year. Downsizing often means increased workloads.

How can executives reduce stress in the workplace?
Stress management can be one of the most cost effective strategies that employers can take. Executives must recognize that work is not the only source of employee stress and introducing programs and benefits that support employees in finding more work-life balance will create a win-win for all parties involved.

Support systems that can offset the stress include:

  • Work-life programs. Flexibility, telecommuting, child and adult care services and job sharing help employees find a balance.


  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can help employees cope with a variety of emotional needs including, marriage, financial, etc.


  • Wellness programs can provide a 24-hour support system that improves employee health and well-being.


  • Improving the food selections in the cafeteria and vending machines.


  • Offering occupational stress workshops sends a message to employees that the employer is concerned about their well-being.


  • Increasing skill-based training includes the use of career ladders to reward skill development, use of job rotation to expand skills and use of job redesign to increase range of skills needed.


  • Improving physical working conditions by improving indoor air quality and reducing levels of physical hazards such as noise, toxins and chemicals.

How can a person’s stress affect others, and how can individuals cope?
An important way to combat stress is to improve one’s communication skills by learning how to speak about your own needs and wants and how to give positive and negative feedback to others. This is known as assertiveness. Practicing relaxation techniques can improve an individual’s ability to effectively manage stress. Taking a break, talking with colleagues, going to the bathroom or water cooler or doing breathing exercises help restore balance on the job. One should refrain from creating stress for others by venting about workplace stresses without offering practical suggestions for solutions.

Probably the most damaging manifestation of severe stress is through aggression or work violence. Passive forms of aggression, such as withholding resources, not responding to phone calls and being late to meetings may be benign but, when constant, can result in great psychological harm and loss of personal or organizational productivity.

How can executives develop schedules that reduce stress?
A number of studies have associated poorer physical and psychological functioning with rotating shifts. On the other hand, more flexible work schedules have the potential of improving employee satisfaction and reducing stress. One of the most popular strategies today is using flextime and other alternative work week schedules.

SALLY STEPHENS is a founder, owner and president of Spectrum Health Systems. She provides the kind of hands-on leadership Spectrum Health Systems needs to deliver cutting-edge health risk management services to its clients that gets results. Reach her at or (317) 573-7600.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006 11:42

Publicity rights

In sales, it is a known fact that celebrities sell products. How a company uses a celebrity or any part of the person’s image is being closely monitored now more than ever by people working to protect the right of intellectual property. According to Jonathan Polak, chair of the Intellectual Property Group at Sommer Barnard PC, companies need to be aware that they will be held responsible for violations of these rights even if they are violated unintentionally.

Smart Business spoke with Polak about the right of publicity and how companies can avoid infringement.

How does the right of publicity relate to corporations?
The right of publicity is the right of any person to control and benefit from the commercial use of his or her identity. This includes not only the look of the celebrity but the image, voice, likeness or symbol associated with the person. If people want to use a famous person to bolster their product, they have to pay for that right.

Companies often want their product associated with a celebrity and never think of the image they are conveying for the celebrity. Often they tarnish the celebrity’s values and essence. There is a misconception that heirs, in attempting to capitalize on the celebrity of their parents, are out profiteering. The truth is, heirs are less interested in the money but rather the control over the way the person is being portrayed.

Companies that are selling merchandise or want to use the image of a celebrity to help sell another product must be aware of these rights to avoid an infringement lawsuit.

How do intellectual property attorneys protect publicity rights of people both living and dead?
We protect the assets by vigorously researching infringements that may exist for any client.

A variety of methods are used to find infringements. We have an Internet research team that scours the Internet looking for misuse of a celebrity or their image. Other teams search through trade publications and various locations to find misuse. Often, the heirs are the best leads because they are the closest to the celebrity, and they want that person to be remembered or viewed in the proper image.

Intellectual property attorneys protect celebrity image and branding. Branding is the consistent use of an image over time to create an association between the celebrity and the product.

How is it determined if the image of the celebrity is used illegally?
A company can be charged with infringement if more than a minute number of people associate the product with the celebrity. If you use the image, likeness or picture of the celebrity without permission, it constitutes infringement.

It is important to note that intent is not a factor used to determine liability. Therefore, a company may be innocent in intending to infringe on a person’s rights but will still be held responsible.

Companies found in violation may have to pay all monies from the sale of the merchandise, and fees such as corrective damages (the amount of money it takes to correct the bad publicity). A celebrity also can demand turnover of all products or merchandise used in the sale.

The recent case making headlines between Jessica Alba and Playboy magazine is an example of the right of celebrity. Playboy legally purchased the rights to a picture of Alba from a studio and put that picture on their cover. While Playboy did clear the copy rights of the photo, it did not clear the publicity rights. Alba’s picture led the public to conclude that she had posed nude for the publication. She did not pose for Playboy. Alba claimed the magazine tarnished the image she worked to convey and infringed on her rights. Hugh Hefner recently apologized to Alba for using her image against her will. Companies need to be aware of the right of celebrity in order to cover all legal aspects of a campaign or product.

How can a company or business use a celebrity or their image properly?
Celebrities, both living and dead, are represented by agents. It is necessary to do the research to determine who owns or manages the rights of that celebrity. Companies should contact an intellectual property attorney to help clear the rights. They need to determine if there is an intended use for commercial purpose. If there is, they need to identify and contact the person who can grant authority to use the celebrity.

Once the proper people have been located then a deal needs to take place. There will likely be an upfront fee to use a celebrity or their image and then an agreement on a royalty payment on the percentage of the profit gained.

JONATHAN POLAK is chair of the Intellectual Property Practice Group and a member of the Sommer Barnard PC’s Business Group. His practice is concentrated in the areas of complex commercial litigation and intellectual property litigation. Reach him at (317) 713-3500 or

Wednesday, 29 March 2006 04:56

Reducing professional fees

All businesses require the assistance of an attorney or a CPA at one time or another.

An attorney is often hired to represent clients in litigation or to provide legal advice and services related to acquisitions or mergers, or when they enter into contractual arrangements. CPAs are hired not only for the preparation of financial statements and tax returns but also for consulting as to mergers and acquisitions, strategic planning and succession planning. While hiring a professional for such services is often the best decision, Glenn Gelman, managing director of Glenn M. Gelman & Associates, says there are tips a client should keep in mind when working with such professionals.

Smart Business spoke to Gelman about how a client can reduce professional fees and get the most out of the professional’s expertise.

What should a client ask a professional before beginning services?

One should ask about billing policies including critical items such as hourly rates and support charges such as phone calls, e-mails, faxes and copying. Professionals such as attorneys often charge by the tenth of an hour. So if you send a professional an e-mail or you leave a one-minute phone message, you may be billed for that service.

Not all professionals subscribe to this type of billing process, but often a client doesn’t find out until it is too late. If a client asks the professional at the beginning, this type of billing can be avoided. All services and billing agreements should be put in writing to avoid unpleasant surprises that weaken the relationship.

What hidden charges should a client be aware of when using professional services?

Behind-the-scenes prices such as copies and faxes are often inflated. Out-of-pocket costs that are often not described clearly may become a financial burden to the client. In instances where a client is using the services of an attorney, law firms may place two attorneys on a case when only one is necessary.

The law firm may believe that two attorneys working on a case is beneficial, because while one is asking questions during a deposition or a trial, the other one is thinking of what to ask next. Depending upon the case and circumstances, this may be inefficient with no real benefit.

What can a client do to reduce professional fees?

The entire process should start with a detailed engagement letter. This letter should describe the nature of the services to be performed. It should include the responsibilities of the client, an estimate of the fees and an outline of the billing process. It should determine who is responsible for paying the fees.

A client should not sign or agree to anything until they receive such a letter. In the case of legal services, you can ask for a range of fees and negotiate those fees before agreeing to services. They may also be able to negotiate a flat rate for services.

The key is discussing fees before starting business, because once you have started and are obligated you cannot readily pull the plug.

How should a client select a professional and what are important attributes for a professional?

Most people use the same professionals that their friends do. The problem is that no two people and no two needs are the same. A better approach may be asking the professional for a list of references, plus four or five more names, so you will not only get people who have agreed to be references.

Depending on the professional, you can use different resources to check their professional history. One can use the Department of Consumer Affairs for attorneys and CPAs to see if there have been complaints. also provides links such as that can provide ratings services.

A client should look for someone who pledges to be responsive, who will return phone calls within a certain period of time and who has a great deal of expertise in the issue in which they are dealing.

What can a client do to get the best service possible from a professional?

One should schedule frequent meetings, talk about their expectations and discuss the progress of the situation. If a client gets an invoice they are upset about, it is important to call the attorney or CPA and ask them to stop work immediately until you can schedule a meeting to discuss the matter at hand.

One should be organized and well-prepared. A professional often will provide an organizer or questionnaire before the first meeting. Do not pay someone to organize your information.

Ask the professional before the first meeting what you can do to reduce fees and be prepared.

Glenn M. Gelman, CPA-MST, is managing director of Glenn M. Gelman & Associates. Reach him at (714) 667-2600 or

Monday, 30 January 2006 19:00

Proper planning

There has been a rise in the number of people interested in estate planning in the past year because of legal battles, such as the Terri Schiavo case, where such plans would have played a crucial role. People often mistakenly equate estate planning with a death scenario and may deem the process too costly and time-consuming.

It can be a pay now or pay later scenario, says Douglas Walouke, a vice president and financial consultant with Hilliard Lyons. Walouke is also a Chartered Financial Analyst(r) and a Chartered Wealth Advisor.(r) “What is the cost of not having a plan is what people should consider,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Walouke about how a person can plan their own estate and the benefits of such a plan.

What does estate planning mean?
When planning their estate, a person should approach the situation with the goal to, ‘Control my property while I am alive and well; plan for my loved ones and (myself) in case I become disabled; be able to give what I want, to whom I want, when I want, the way I want and do that at costs which are fully disclosed to me and to those I love.’”

What does an estate plan include?
An estate plan includes things such as how a person’s assets are currently titled and invested, in the event of disability how assets are used to care for one’s self and family, and in the event of death how assets are to be disbursed and how children are to be cared for. An estate plan should also include detailed financial plans for funding retirement and education.

When should a person start planning?
If the goals I previously mentioned have not yet been achieved, it is time to start planning.

An important thing for people to realize about an estate plan is that it is revocable. This means that documents can be changed as people move through various stages of life and acquire more assets and experience changing priorities.

Most people equate an estate plan with a will, but an estate plan is important to have when you are alive. A person is six to seven times more likely to become seriously disabled than to die prematurely. An estate plan would become effective in such instances and would determine the distribution of current assets.

It is more about taking care of yourself, not in a selfish way, but in the sense that you remove the burden of decision making from someone else.

How does developing an estate plan benefit an individual?
If an estate is not planned, the state will have a plan of its own that will be costly, in terms of both probate and taxation costs, and is not likely to be what a person would have wanted. Also, if a person has an estate plan with assets held within trusts, they can avoid probate.

A will must go through the probate court, making it public record, and can be contested. By using trusts, you prevent assets from going through this process and keep information private. For some people, there is even a certain weight lifted from their shoulders when they know that they have designed a plan that will be carried out the way they wish.

How can a person design a plan that is in their best interest?
I recommend that people find professionals who take a collaborative approach to estate and financial planning. Finding professionals who ascribe to a collaborative approach is beneficial. The professionals should include a financial consultant, an estate-planning attorney and an accountant.

Who should a person contact and what should a person have prepared to start planning?
Ultimately, people will need an attorney to help prepare an estate and draw up the proper trust documents. In wealth management practice, financial planners work closely with estate planning attorneys to make sure clients cover all their bases. I recommend that a person look for a planner with credentials. It is important to find advisers who can admit they do not have all of the answers, but who can direct you to and work with people who can help.

Financial consultants need to know every asset an individual owns in order to manage their affairs effectively — bank statements, investments, insurance policies, tax returns and 401(k) plans. Allow these (consultants) to know about any family situations that may determine the way their money is handled, such as a child with a disability.

Doug Walouke is a vice president and financial consultant with Hilliard Lyons. Walouke is also a Chartered Financial Analyst(r) and a Chartered Wealth Advisor.(r) He can be reached for further information on financial planning at or (800) 285-9667.

Tuesday, 27 December 2005 11:56

Up in flames

Cutting costs and increasing revenue are common goals for many companies. Downsizing and increased productivity are often used to achieve these goals.

However, Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems, suggests employers begin to take notice of those employees who are costing companies the most.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate the average cost of smoking as $3,383 per smoker, per year. This breaks down to an estimated $1,760 in lost productivity and $1,623 in excess medical expenditures, says Stephens.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about how employees who smoke affect company costs and how employers can take action.

What are the health effects of smoking?
Some of the irreversible health effects are permanent changes in the structure or function of organ systems. Coronary artery disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and stroke is the third. There is a strong link between smoking and both diseases.

Smoking also leads to an increased risk of certain cancers, heart attacks, diabetes and ulcers. It reduces lung function and can develop into obstructed pulmonary disease.

There are significant benefits for a person who quits smoking. Within five to 10 years after quitting, a former smoker’s health risk is no different than that of a nonsmoker.

Why should employers worry about having employees who smoke?
Smokers cost companies money. Smoking can cause the development of costly medical conditions and often companies end up footing the bill. Smokers tend to see physicians more often and simple conditions such as the common cold often develop into more serious respiratory problems.

A smoker may need more time off work after having surgery because healing time is delayed and they are more susceptible to incurring infections. In fact, smokers have an overall lower survival rate after surgery.

Smokers are at a higher risk for a multitude of health problems as compared to nonsmokers and, in turn, result in higher medical costs, increased absenteeism and lost productivity.

How can smoking affect an employee’s work performance?
Smoke breaks are a major issue regarding a worker’s performance. If workers leave their desks to smoke, they are not working. In turn, there is a loss in productivity.

Absenteeism is a large piece of the burden in the cost to an employer. Companies are paying smokers for days they are absent from the job as well as for medical bills they are accruing.

A smoker’s level of concentration and ability to interact with others decreases as the level of nicotine in their system drops. The exact results of such a drop in nicotine primarily depend on the habit of the smoker and the frequency in which they smoke.

How can employers curb employee smoking or help employees quit?
A common trend for many employers is to become more involved in employees’ health. One way is to implement a no-smoking policy. This policy differs among companies. Employers may prohibit employees from smoking anywhere on company grounds. Some companies even enforce the rule that employees are not allowed to smoke in their cars in the parking lot.

Now we see some executives offering incentives such as leave time. They are also implementing certain programs that help their employees quit smoking. Employers should realize smoking is a tough habit to break and should be considerate of the challenge.

For example, executives of companies could say by the year 2007 we will be implementing a no-smoking policy. They could offer smokers help to quit such as covering the cost of nicotine replacements or offering smoking cessation programs. Stopping smoking used to be a costly venture, however, today there are more options at reasonable prices from which employers can choose.

Are there any legal considerations regarding no-smoking policy programs that executives need to be aware of?
An employer must be cautious of the discrimination laws. For example, one must be careful when offering a smoker a monetary incentive to quit. This is considered a form of discrimination against a nonsmoker, because a nonsmoker does not qualify for the incentive. If incentives are offered, they must be offered in a way that all employees are eligible.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns against the use of discrimination against lifestyle choices such as smoking. They fear that the use of such discrimination might then go deeper into an individual’s lifestyle choices and violate privacy.

How can helping employees quit improve business costs?
Employees who quit could save their employer around $3,000 a year. Medical costs will decrease as the employees’ overall health improves. This will also reduce the amount of absences and increase productivity as employees take fewer breaks.

Sally Stephens is the president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach Stephens at (317) 573-7600 or at

Saturday, 26 July 2008 20:00

Reality check

How horrible to watch your American Dream go up in smoke. Even worse, to find out your insurance coverage won’t replace it. Winds can carry hot embers as far as 5 miles, meaning wildfires should be a concern to all of us.

Wildfire season started earlier than normal this year and already thousands of acres and scores of homes and structures have burned. The fire chiefs say this could be the worst fire season ever. Wildfires don’t just burn homes that are on the outskirts of town.

One obvious lesson we should have learned from past wildfires was the disparity in insurance policy performance after these wildfires. According to the Census Bureau, after the 2003 wildfire, only 46 percent of the homes had been rebuilt by late 2007.

Why do some homeowners restore their homes and quickly return to their lifestyle while others are left to haggle over major additional out-of-pocket expenses?

“Because all homeowner policies are not created equal,” says Mary Hammett, personal lines broker with Westland Insurance Brokers.

Smart Business spoke with Hammett to see what consumers should know about their homeowner insurance policies and how to select proper coverage.

If a fire destroys your custom-built home with lush landscaping, will your homeowner’s insurance policy cover the loss?

Probably not. Most people are covered by a mass-market homeowner insurance carrier and have been insured by the same agent for many years not realizing they have outgrown their policy. These policies are not designed for high-value homes with custom work or expensive landscaping like 50-foot-high palm trees. After the fire, homeowners often end up battling their insurance carriers to provide coverage that they didn’t realize they hadn’t purchased in the first place, delaying hope of rebuilding their lives fully and quickly.

What can consumers do to ensure they have the right policy for their custom home?

By working with an experienced independent broker, a policy can be tailored to their individual needs. Brokers have access to insurance companies who specialize in insuring high-value homes. These policies are designed to anticipate the needs and demands of these affluent homes and the lifestyles of their owners. These policies automatically provide broader coverage and can be customized to eliminate coverage inadequacies.

What is meant by ‘coverage inadequacies’?

According to the California Department of Insurance, as many as 40 percent of homeowners statewide lack the insurance needed to cover home replacement costs. It is challenging to determine replacement costs, especially for custom homes with many unique features and exceptional building quality and architectural design. Building costs are rapidly changing with international demand and the cost of gasoline. Because of such changes, high-value home insurance carriers provide an additional service to their policyholders with an on-site replacement cost evaluation. The inspection is very technical and is completed by a highly trained professional in construction and interior design. This in-depth assessment removes the guesswork and assists the homeowner in purchasing adequate insurance coverage.

Why is it important to have adequate coverage for your dwelling and other structures?

You need adequate dwelling coverage because policies do not guarantee replacement. Additionally, if your home is damaged or destroyed during a catastrophe, costs to rebuild can double overnight due to the huge demand on materials and labor to rebuild numerous homes at the same time. High-value home policies typically provide 200 percent extended replacement cost, providing you a sufficient buffer from catastrophic-loss increases. Most mass-market policies provide up to only 125 percent of the coverage limit. So if you are underinsured to begin with, exponentially the problem worsens if your loss is during a catastrophic event. This coverage difference alone equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars less coverage with which to rebuild your home.

What are other areas where policies may lack in coverage?

Loss of use. Most mass-market policies provide 20 percent of the dwelling amount with 24 months max, whereas high-value home policies provide ‘actual loss sustained’ without a dollar or time restriction.

Landscape coverage. Most mass-market policies provide anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 total coverage for landscaping with a maximum of $500 for any one plant, tree or shrub. These policies also can’t add coverage should the need exist, whereas high-value home policies can insure those palm trees.

Building code. Most mass-market policies provide only 10 percent or 20 percent of the dwelling limit. The older the home the more important this coverage is since more building codes will have changed. High-value home policies include all building code costs with no capped payout, even when the costs exceed the coverage limit.

Contents. Make sure your policy provides replacement cost and will not depreciate the value of your contents. All policies have internal limits for certain items restricting coverage, so schedule fine art and jewelry or collectibles so these items can be replaced.

MARY HAMMETT is a personal lines broker specializing in the affluent market with Westland Insurance Brokers. Reach her at (800) 541-0711 x3217 or