Delaware company seeks to shake up employer insurance experience
SLAUGHTER BEACH – From a small home production studio, Ed St. Jean III, founder of Pro Benefits Plus, can discuss the intricacies of health care plans for a dozen machinists in Baltimore, a handful of plumbers on the Eastern Shore and 50 administrative staff members in Dover in a single day.
He’s able to do that because of his small 1-year-old brokerage leverages advancing technology to make the health care market more transparent for small to mid-sized businesses and user-friendly for employees.
“We want to be the Zappos or Amazon of benefits. You can get an immediate response to inquiries and price shop the available plans,” St. Jean told Delaware Business Times of his seven-employee company.
While individuals benefited from 2010’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), which established insurance marketplaces where they could shop available plans online, small businesses didn’t receive that same level of transparency. They still must rely on consultants or get plan quotes themselves each year in order to ensure better benefits or decreased costs – and that’s where St. Jean saw an opportunity.
He wasn’t really meant to be an insurance broker though.
St. Jean is a trained chef who cooked at fine dining restaurants on the East Coast and at four-star Hawaiian resorts. But his career path almost always followed where he could find quality health care coverage – a byproduct of a teenage health scare.
St. Jean was 19 when he suffered incapacitating seizures. Tests later determined that he had acute right ventricular dysplasia, a rare heart disease that disrupts the heart’s natural rhythm. To correct its rhythm, he would have a defibrillator implanted in his chest. But the diagnosis would profoundly change his life’s direction.
In the pre-ACA era, St. Jean had to get his own insurance as soon as he graduated college. With a serious pre-existing medical condition, he had to find employers with quality coverage to help him subsidize the costs of his health care needs.
“I learned everything by fire – some of the things that were good about insurance and some of the things that were bad about insurance,” he said.
In 2006, he moved back to Baltimore when his father was enduring his own health challenges, and, with his experience-gained knowledge about insurance, St. Jean got a job working for an independent brokerage. There, he worked for 12 years before coming up with the ideas that formed the foundation for his company.
Pro Benefit Plus has done two specific things: made the health care market more transparent for employers and leveraged technology to reach employees where they are.
Its first offering was Enrollment Meeting On Demand (EMOD), which builds explanatory videos about an employer’s benefits package tailormade to each client – right down to background visuals from a company’s headquarters. The videos are available to employees at any time, allowing them to skip the often-boring annual in-person meetings connected to benefits and later watch the explanation with a spouse or dependent who may have questions.
Lynda Hefner, president and owner of Clark Machine Corp., based in Baltimore, told DBT that EMOD was a “gamechanger” for her roughly 50 employees. With the prevalence of smartphones today, she said it was a convenient option for everyone in the 77-year-old company.
“It just takes so much of the stress and pressure off me to have to communicate to everyone in our company about the details of a plan,” she said. “That’s the way it’s going and that’s the way that employees want to get their info rather than having to sit through another meeting.”
Meanwhile, Pro Benefits Plus’ newly launched product, Market Update, has compiled a database of all plans offered to Delaware employers with up to 50 employees from Highmark, Aetna and United Healthcare. The rates the insurance carriers can charge for different services are approved by state regulators, meaning they will be the same no matter who obtains a quote.
While St. Jean concedes that an employer could take the information and quote he provides back to another broker, he is banking on the quality of his product to convince clients to sign with Pro Benefits Plus. St. Jean has also made it a company policy to not accept retention bonuses from insurance carriers, a common practice in the health care industry, and takes only a standard commission on core plans, explaining that his business model is built on building up a large portfolio of clients to be profitable.
In terms of supplemental coverage, Pro Benefits Plus has negotiated favorable three-year pricing on offerings like dental and vision insurance, disability plans, health reimbursement accounts, flexible spending accounts, and employee assistance, he said. It has also developed partnerships with health-related smartphone apps like BurnAware and Health Wallet.
St. Jean said that he encourages his clients to offer at least two different plans for most insurances, although three is preferable if you have about a dozen employees or more. Employers don’t face any additional costs for offering more plans, but many simply don’t want to take on the administrative work of weighing the plans, he said.
“They should have a high and low dental plan. A basic dental plan excludes caps, crowns, bridges, implants, etc.,” he said. “Why should I spend 40% more in my dental premium for my family at $120 a month? Why shouldn’t I pay $63 a month? That’s a big difference.”
St. Jean said that due the country’s robust economy, where national unemployment sat at 3.5% as of February and Delaware just above that as of December, employers must stay vigilant to find the best candidates.
Too many employers shortchange the impact that quality benefit packages can have on employee retention or attraction, he said. An employer weighing either making beneficial insurance changes or giving salary increases should remember that increased salaries are subject to taxation, while decreasing the cost of care can be just as effective in putting money back into an employee’s pocket without moving the needle on taxation, St. Jean explained.
“For instance, for a few thousand dollars a mid-sized employer could pay for $10,000 life insurance plans to all employees for far less than $100 a person,” he said.
Sought-after job applicants will often weigh competing offers from employers on the quality of its benefits package. Jobseekers rated benefits the second most important factor in considering potential employers in a 2018 Glassdoor survey.
While he’s launching the Market Update service in Delaware and Maryland right now, he said his long-term goal would be to branch out to other neighboring markets, likely adding Washington, D.C., next.
His services have been drawing interest from some of Delaware’s large carriers, although he said he isn’t yet at liberty to divulge what they’ve discussed since non-disclosure agreements are in place.
“The idea is what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.
By Jacob Owens