Confessions of a benefits manager: Change for the worse

An attempt to re-broke the company’s UK medical plan causes widespread palpitations, headaches and convulsions – and unearths the curious case of an unknown Mr Pipp, as Candid explains

My colleagues at HQ know how to have a good time. Apparently, they have been talking to Smarmy Consulting about multinational insurance pooling opportunities. Gosh, the excitement of it all. The result of all this analysis, compiled at vast expense, is that we should re-broke our UK medical plan. And guess what? Smarmy can even help us with that exercise, too. It has all been arranged above my head, so all I can do is smile sweetly and organise a meeting.

Smarmy want to know all about the employees in the plan and details of our claims experience. Actually, the only way I can get that data is to speak to my current supplier, but I don’t want to upset them. I decide to say I am perfectly happy with their service, but we have to go through a market review every few years to satisfy the Benefits Committee. They are still a bit frosty, which is a shame because they always take me for a very nice lunch around renewal time.

Smarmy disappear for a while with their calculators, and finally resurface with a 20-page report. As usual, it takes me three read-throughs to make any sense of it. I know they need to justify their fee, but why make such a meal of it? There are only two things I want to know: which supplier is cheapest and do they offer the same benefits? Smarmy haven’t thought to put benefit comparisons in the report, but they assure me they are equivalent plans. I know from bitter experience that this is not the same as saying they are the same plans. I have horrible memories of the last time we switched supplier, only to find they had sneaked in some small changes, one of which was a standard excess for every claim. Certain locations had never had an excess before, and you should have heard the squealing. The worst offender was one of the Higher Beings. Even though he earns enough to maintain three executive homes, he insisted on claiming the excess back on expenses, saying it constituted a change to his terms and conditions. I am not going through that again.

Looking at the cost comparisons, the bad news is that our current supplier isn’t the cheapest. And I really don’t want to move. It’s not just that I don’t want to miss out on a nice lunch this year, it is also that any change, even a minor one, provokes something like benefits rage in our employees. Still, in these cost-conscious times, I can’t afford not to act, particularly when advised by a consultancy hired by my boss’s boss.

The change turns out to be hard work, as I knew it would be. I have to fill out a three-page form in triplicate for the new supplier. Smarmy could have filled this out for me, especially the tricky questions, but they haven’t. I also have to arrange for fresh data to be sent over and supply details of any absences. I am beginning to wonder who is working for whom around here.

The new policy has been in place for barely 24 hours when I get my first complaint. One of our employees has been refused payment of an ongoing claim because the account is on hold. It is on hold because we haven’t paid our bill. Well, naturally we haven’t paid the bill – we haven’t had an invoice yet. I get on the phone to Smarmy. My contact is on holiday for two weeks. Clever – stitch up your client with a lousy new supplier and then flee the country.

I call the number on the paperwork. My heart sinks as it is a call centre. Eventually, after having to call back twice to get through the labyrinth of options, I get through to a human being (although I use the term loosely in this case). My customer service representative, Sandy, does speak English, which is a great start, but she is working through a pre-defined script like an automaton. She asks for my scheme number. I rummage through the paperwork to find it. I start to describe the problem, but she doesn’t listen. She asks for my address and claim number. I tell her I am calling on behalf of the company, following up a complaint by one of our employees. She tells me she can’t divulge details of another claimant. Eventually, she puts me through to another department. I manage to explain, but still they can’t help me. Until we pay the invoice, the account is on hold. Through gritted teeth, I ask how we can get an invoice in a hurry.

Finally, when it is all sorted out, I get a call from Finance. They want to know why we are paying for medical benefits for a Mr Pipp in Lancashire. I check our records. We don’t have anyone called Mr Pipp in Lancashire, or anywhere else for that matter, so it is a very good question. Despite a thorough investigation, we can find no one of that name, so we cancel his subscription. It niggles me, though, because this appears to be yet another problem with this new supplier. I look back at the reports from the old provider to prove it. I am surprised to find we were paying for Mr Pipp then, too. Actually, we have been paying medical benefits for the man for over five years. But who is he? He must be someone else’s client. I consider giving our old supplier a hard time about it, but really there seems little point, especially as we never picked it up before. Let’s face it, I never picked it up before. I think I will just draw a veil over that one.

Next time…Candid is invited to a company dinner.