One word characterizes many of Benefits Alliance’s initiatives in 2023 and going into 2024: elevate. The association has been working hard to increase its profile and raise the bar for advisors and consultants for group health benefits and retirement savings. And its heightened efforts in advocacy are making inroads.
“Benefits Alliance, being driven by advocacy, has continued to be a proponent for the professionalization of our industry,” says Todd Stephen, Chair of the Advocacy Committee and Vice-President, Employee Benefits & Pension at Selectpath Benefits & Financial in Saint John, New Brunswick, a member firm of Benefits Alliance (BA).
The overarching goal is to meet and exceed the expectations of plan sponsors. “We are always seeking to answer the question, what can we do to provide value?” says Brenda Mullen, Chair of BA’s Group Retirement Services Committee and Senior Consultant, Employee Retirement Plans at Belay Advisory in Calgary.
The answer comes in part through BA’s unique capacity to facilitate networking and collaboration between its members. For example, its Click and Connect sessions bring together 15 to 20 novice and seasoned advisors in “an intimate setting” that fosters dialogue and brainstorming. “The idea is to create a safe virtual space for younger advisors to learn about the industry and make connections. It’s been a big win,” says Mullen.
BA’s sold-out spring and fall conferences combine networking with education. “Our BA advisors who are experts in group benefits and group retirement explore key topics at a deep level with subject matter experts from our preferred solutions providers. They also share best practices so we can support each other to be better advisors who provide better advice,” says Chantell Arsenault, Chair of the Events Committee and Employee Benefits Consultant and Partner at Acera Insurance.
For on-demand information, BA’s Knowledge Library is a member portal that houses extensive industry-specific information to help advisors stay abreast of key issues. It also offers templates to reduce duplication of efforts. For example, a template walks advisors through how to conduct a pension audit. “BA can play a part in members’ business model, by enabling efficiencies and best practices,” says Mullen.
As well, BA launched its podcast, Benefits Alliance Voice, in November 2023. It will update BA’s members as well as the public on topics such as financial literacy, pharmacare and how retirement programs work, bringing in industry leaders to share their knowledge and advice.
The best providers
Vetting and partnering with a wider range of preferred providers to better serve the needs of plan sponsors was a major focus for 2023, one that will continue in 2024. “We’ve added quite a few,” says Glenn Kehrer, Chair of the Group Benefits Committee and a certified financial planner with Group Benefits Consulting Canada in Winnipeg. “We are thoughtful in narrowing down who we feel would be a good fit for the broader BA membership,” adds Mullen. Click here for the full list of BA’s preferred providers. The following companies came on board in 2023:
- Havern Benefits Strategies for group benefits design, in Canada and the U.S.;
- PolicyMe for online quotes and applications for insurance policies;
- Pocketpills, a mail-order pharmacy;
- CloudMD to develop and navigate personalized care programs
- headversity, digital mental-health training programs; and
- MFS for investment management.
Come 2024, plan sponsors can look forward to additional providers in the areas of mental health, executive health and supplementary travel. “Many group travel policies are for 60 to 90 days, but retired employees may need longer periods of coverage,” notes Kehrer.
BA’s Technology Committee is also hard at work evaluating providers and options for industry benchmarking and a data warehouse tool. “We’ve been engaging prospective providers as well as our carrier partners and we’re keen to develop a solution that helps all of us have valuable and relevant discussions with our plan sponsors and the industry,” says Lio Spagnuolo, the committee’s Chair for 2023 and President of Penmore Benefits.
Strength in numbers
A major focus for BA for the coming year will be to continue to build and promote its membership among independent group benefits and pension advisory firms. Currently, 29 member firms represent more than 10,000 small to mid-size employer plan sponsors, accounting for more than $1.4 billion of group insurance premiums and more than $3.5 billion in retirement plan assets.
Prospective member firms are peer-nominated and reviewed. “Only the best advisors are invited to join our group,” says Stephen.
Here’s a round-up of BA’s achievements and plans in advocacy and mental health:
BA invested more resources to advocate on behalf of both benefits advisors and plan sponsors in 2023. Here are snapshots of two top priorities.
Financial advisor designation – Stephen is buoyed by the fact that BA’s efforts regarding the protection of the financial advisor title are having success. He says Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are in the process of implementing protection for the financial advisor designation.
“We’re re-educating regulators and policymakers,” he says. “You should have more than a life insurance license to call yourself a specialist. And we’ve set the table for future supplemental titles.” He says BA will also develop continuing education programs to educate members on the value of attaining the financial advisor title.
Pharmacare – BA will continue to advocate on behalf of plan sponsors, with a focus on raising awareness of the financial impact of high-cost medications—many of which have become the standard of care, replacing surgeries and procedures covered by hospitals—on private drug plans. “It’s a massive shift from public payer to private payer depending on what province you’re in,” says Stephen. “That needs to change.” BA supports a hybrid model for universal pharmacare, building on the current system of public and private plans. “No Canadian should be left behind with respect to access to drug therapies. But the bigger issue is the development of policy for high-cost drugs,” says Stephen.
2023 was also a productive year for initiatives in mental health. Christine MacDonald, Chair of the Mental Health Committee and Partner and Advisor for Employee Benefits, Pensions and Wellness at Selectpath in Halifax, focussed her efforts on identifying care gaps and selecting reputable preferred providers to help close those gaps. In addition to CloudMD and headversity, which came on board in 2023, early in 2024 BA will welcome EHN, a provider of on- and off-site counselling on suicide, addiction and other serious mental health conditions.
Educating and training advisors is another top priority. The committee regularly updates its playbook for advisors, housed in BA’s Knowledge Library, to use when working with a colleague or client with a personal mental health issue—and to become more mindful and responsive to their own mental health. She says while some advisors are comfortable discussing mental health, many are still hesitant to bring it up. “We want to make it normal to talk about this,” she says.
BA is also aiming to boost mental health advocacy among its members by leveraging advisors who are already championing mental health in their own workplaces. These individuals will be asked to share their approaches with other advisors. All in all, the chairs of BA’s committees agree that all the hard work of the past year has laid a solid base for more advocacy, education and best practices. “Bring on 2024!” enthuses Mullen.
“We’ve got a great membership—from bright young people at the front end of their career to people who have lots of experience,” adds Stephen. “I’m excited about the growth in advocacy—and I see Benefits Alliance continuing to grow.”