History is littered with examples of people who stumbled into an innovative product almost by accident. We’ve all heard the stories of Coca-Cola, Corn Flakes, Scotch Tape, and Silly Putty. Less known are companies that strategically moved into an innovative space despite things outside their control. Senior Market Sales (SMS) might not be widely talked about at Harvard Business School yet, but Senior VP of Medicare Solutions Dwane McFerrin probably thinks they should be.
McFerrin has been with SMS for fifteen years. NAHU members might recognize the name from his seven-year work on NAHU’s Medicare Working Group. He also serves on the Prescription Drug Task Force and Mental Health Task Force.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SMS invested in the call center channels that were relatively new to the Medicare market. “We worked with 65,000 brokers around the country,” says McFerrin, “And brokers were very involved with doing Medicare workshops. They’d get in front of a group of seniors and try to schedule appointments. That worked — until the pandemic.”
Once the virus shuffled seniors into their homes, “The call center business really took off,” says McFerrin. He adds that brokers diverged into those that thought (or hoped) the whole thing was going to pass and took time off, and those that adapted. Broker business fell by 30% for SMS in Q2 2020. And for those that worked to adapt to the virus’ restrictions, “We saw the adoption of our agent tools increase,” says McFerrin.
Those tools included digital signing tools to allow clients to give consent for sharing drug histories. “No more spelling [drug names] out over the phone. No more getting a list from a pharmacy. No more pulling bottles out of a medicine cabinet,” says McFerrin. With over 10,000 brokers and growing using those and other digital tools, broker business started to bounce back.
“2020 came to be our best year ever,” says McFerrin, adding, “We wrote 540,000 apps last year through agencies. And that was an all-time record.”
As Americans of all ages emerge from social distancing restrictions, plenty of discussion is being had about all the silver linings of some of our new adaptations and loosened regulations that might be worth keeping.
For SMS, McFerrin says, “We believe the tech is there. We weren’t anticipating a pandemic, but it forced agents and carriers to change. And that prior investment in technology certainly fell in our favor.”
As vaccinations in seniors increase, some Medicare brokers are returning to group sessions and prior marketing channels. A strategy McFerrin attributes to pandemic fatigue and people wanting to visit their doctor or stores or other people again. “So we’re seeing 2021 balancing out to a more productive year.”
SMS is equally bullish on new products, too. For the first time, Medicare Advantage sales eclipsed Medicare Supplement plans in 2020 for SMS. And the Omaha-based company sold $40 million in dental plan premiums. “I’m pretty sure we’re number 1 there,” says McFerrin with pride.
Medicare Part D has also opened the door for agents to sell other products like life and annuity plans. “For the agent interested in using Medicare for transactions toward other assets, we’ve got that all under one roof at SMS,” he says.
While prior IT investments may have pre-positioned SMS to fare well in a pandemic, legislation continues to prove a challenge. McFerrin’s not shy about saying Medicare’s success as a program might empower legislators to lower the eligibility age to 60 or 62 as a “first step toward a single-payer system.”
For now, SMS is playing within the rules and finding useful ways to marry Medicare and group benefit plans. New Individual Coverage HRA legislation would allow an employer to provide subsidies toward individual market or ACA plans, but would also included Medicare premiums, thus enabling Medicare purchases through work.
“I really see the consumer has adapted and I think we will change forever,” says McFerrin. “Whether it’s telemedicine or purchasing online, we’ve accelerated the consumer acceptance of tech. For those agents who haven’t embraced the technology, they’re probably missing the transformation. They need to adapt faster than the senior, not slower.”
Senior Market Sales was a sponsor of the ISAHU-INsure Health and Benefits Expo. To learn more about SMS visit seniormarketsales.com.