Understanding Broker Anger
Posted by Alan on December 13, 2010
Non-insurance brokers reading this blog may be wondering what the fuss is about. Yes, commissions are being reduced, especially in the individual market segment. Who didn’t see the writing on that wall? Given the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s medical loss ratio provisions, a substantial cut in individual health insurance commissions was a mathematical certainty.
So why the anger, despair and sense of betrayal? Yes, fear that one won’t be able to make a living in one’s chosen profession has a tendency to make macro events very micro – and personal. This would explain the despair, but more is going on here than concern over a reduced revenue stream.
Most brokers reading this blog are far more engaged in insurance sales and service than I currently am and can express how brokers feel far better than me. (Hopefully they will – and will do so civilly). However, I’d like to offer some observations to non-broker readers to start the dialogue.
First, let’s get the obvious issue out-of-the-way. Yes, the money matters. Professional brokers add value to the products they sell and service. (The service aspect of what brokers do is too often overlooked, but it is a major part of the job). Brokers want to be fairly compensated for that value. There are bills to pay and other products to sell. Time and resources are being spent and commensurate compensation is deserved.
The commission cuts we’re seeing vary greatly from state-to-state, carrier-to-carrier and product segment-to-product segment. In the individual market (where consumers buy coverage without support of an employer) commission reductions of roughly 30-to-50 percent appear to be the norm. Cuts of this magnitude would disrupt any enterprise. Imagine telling GM that their new $41,000 Volt must now be sold for $25,000. So much for paying back their government loans. Look at what happened in California when state revenues fell by roughly 20% from fiscal year 2007-08 to 2008-09. (For those not paying attention, the result has been a fiscal, policy and political nightmare).
Brokers recognize that during the Great Recession others have sustained even harsher financial hits. Yet when it’s your cash flow, company doesn’t reduce the misery. Yes, brokers are better off than the owner of a neighborhood business bracing for the arrival of a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood or of a worker watching her job shipped overseas. After all, when a business closes or a job ends, all compensation revenue and income ends, too.
Brokers, however, still have strong relationships with their clients. There are other products to sell and service. Some producers no doubt have already calculated that the size of cuts to commission rates in many instances do not necessarily reflect commensurate cuts in actual compensation (in some circumstances, unfortunately, they do). Between 2004 and 2009 the average premium in the individual health insurance market segment increased by 31% for single coverage and 43% for family policies according to two reports published America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for carriers. Premiums have no doubt increased in 2010 and will again in 2011 – the PPACA will see to that.
Still, given commission reductions of the magnitude being reported, the response of many brokers is neither surprising nor inappropriate – and it is intense and genuine. Because there is more involved here than the money.
Professionals who have devoted their careers to serving their clients and supporting their carriers are being told by those same companies that those services will no longer be worth tomorrow what they are today (in a monetary sense). At the same time, carriers are reminding brokers that their role in educating consumers has never been more important given the new health care reform law. How could anyone in this situation feel anything but devalued personally and professionally?
Intellectually most producers knew changes to the commission structure were inevitable even in the absence of reform. Tying broker compensation to the rate of medical inflation, which brokers know has greatly outpaced general inflation for years, was becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make commission cuts any easier to accept. This is especially true when some carriers seem to be hiding behind health care reform to lower average commissions below what the math embedded in the PPACA’s medical loss ratio provisions seems to require (roughly to 7-to-8 percent of premium). Were these carriers to fully explain why they were reducing commissions significantly below their competitors, brokers might find the situation more easy to accept. Instead, brokers are being told “Here it is, take it or leave it.” A message that does nothing to address brokers concerns, but simply inflames their anger.
Worse, some carriers have apparently chosen to apply the compensation reductions to brokers’ existing block of business. This is a tactic brokers find unacceptable (and I feel for the sales executives of these carriers who have to explain and justify an approach they vehemently opposed).
Why are brokers concerned about retroactive commission cuts? For the same reason no health plan CFO would let their company offer a policy empowering subscribers to unilaterally lower premium payments simply by declaring that “household costs must be cut.” Yet these same CFOs are asking brokers to accept such an arrangement.
That even one carrier would attempt to take this approach undermines trust in all carriers. Brokers entrusted their clients and a portion of their livelihood to these insurers. Yes, there are contracts governing these arrangements, but there’s a large element of trust involved, too. Brokers rely on insurers to provide the coverage promised in their policies, to treat their clients fairly, and to be dependable business partners. Retroactively cutting commissions on existing business defies the definition of dependable.
My guess is that when their sales drop precipitously, as they inevitably will, these carriers will reconsider this approach. Insurers have, after all, retreated from similarly bad compensation ideas in the past (more on these examples in a future post). Even then, however, the sense of betrayal brokers feel today will linger.
Complicating brokers evolving view of their carriers is that while the commission cuts are obvious, other cost cutting measures insurers are taking are less apparent. The ranks of home office executives are being reduced at many companies, for example. but unless these terminated officers worked directly with brokers, their departure goes largely unnoticed. As a result many brokers feel, (in many cases wrongly) that carriers are not accepting their a share of the pain necessitated by the PPACA.
Brokers rightfully consider the services they provide their clients – and their carriers – to be valuable and important. And they are. Clients trust their brokers far more than their carriers. Consumers listen to their agents when it comes to choosing a health plan; I’ve never heard of a consumer listening to a carrier when it comes to choosing their agent. Most carriers seem to be making the cuts that the math requires of them. Brokers who expect that 20% commissions in an age of 80% medical loss ratios can continue are being unrealistic. And attacks on all carriers for unfair or inappropriate actions taken by a few insurers are unfair. Yet doing so is all too easy – and human.
Whether as a non-broker you believe producers have been overly compensated or not, the reality is that the imposition of commission cuts understates and undermines the perceived value of the profession. Brokers may have been reassured by the resolution passed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners expressed their concern about the negative impact the PPACA could have brokers this past summer. They may be heartened to know that state regulators was calling on the Administration to “protect the ability of licensed insurance professionals to continue to service the public.” But outcomes trump good intentions. And while the position of the NAIC may impact the role of brokers in the future, what producers are seeing now is a devaluation of their work.
I believe that’s the greatest source of anger. Yes, selling and servicing individual health insurance will be less profitable next year than this year. Producers will determine on a broker-by-broker basis whether selling and servicing individual health insurance will be profitable enough to justify continuing to do so. What works for one broker may not for another.
The income being lost today will, I predict, be replaced through an influx of new customers and increases in the cost of coverage. What will be far harder to set right is the diminished trust between brokers and carriers. Loyalties and relationships have been strained and must be reforged. Harder still, however, will be restoring brokers’ sense that the value they provide is recognized and respected. Doing so will require carriers, lawmakers and regulators to treat brokers differently than has been too often the case to date.
Whether they are inclined to do so remains to be seen. Until they do, however, broker anger will continue, even when the lost income is replaced.
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