Alex Bennett talks to Lucy Quinton about his plans to develop Aon's consulting services to ensure the effective delivery of employee healthcare provision
The quietly authoritative and well-mannered Alex Bennett who arrives for his photoshoot at COVER's office in the heart of Soho is a patient man unused to fame.
As the tourists walk on after failing to recognise the man being photographed, Bennett comes out of his shell to talk about his role.
Like many other figureheads in the industry, Bennett originally fell into the market by chance. "There was no grand plan. I joined a company called Crown Life, ill-advisedly decided not to go to university and found myself in the healthcare team which, fortunately for me, was run by Peter Dalby who went onto launch Prime Health and then became managing director of Standard Life Healthcare".
Due to company exoduses and restructuring, Bennett learnt a lot while young through working with various industry heavyweights. He says this included finding out about underwriting, paying claims and credit control.
The decision to work in healthcare was a chance one and offered plenty of opportunity as the sector was young and growing, and it was for these reasons he decided to stay in the market. He says people are spending more time and money looking after themselves and their families which encapsulates the challenges, difficulties and opportunities involved in his job.
Bennett describes his role as looking to the future in a fast-changing area. The integral link, he thinks, is to make what will happen in the future relevant to his clients' needs today.
Bennett is actively involved in developing Aon's range of consulting services and tools to help clients effectively manage their employee health risks and costs, explaining it is about ensuring clients understand what the firm is doing rather than just perceiving Aon as broking business for them. "We have the skills and expertise along with the will to look after all their employee health and risk needs," he says. This involves supporting clients and intervening and offering assistance when they need it.
He believes the private medical insurance (PMI) market is trying hard. "It is attempting to grow beyond where it started. Private healthcare is still something that only around 12% of the UK population have and the number of claimants in any year is a further subsection of that percentage. While most individuals buy PMI for specific needs, most employers buy it to offer a competitive package.
While 12% of the population has PMI, Bennett estimates only 6% of employers offer it, a figure he would like to see increase over time. This could happen as employers invest more money in health risks and costs in the future, a pretty inevitable scenario says Bennett as spending will mirror society's in general.
Discussing changes in the industry, he explains there are far more subjective claims now which are driving the costs of group risk benefits and healthcare up. There has been recognition from the group income protection market that by offering support at an earlier point it is possible to avoid the situation where people have to leave employment through disability.
Bennett observes three clear trends in the market. One is an awareness that by convincing people to change their lifestyles, it is possible to achieve a number of improvements. Ultimately, this reduces the risk profile and gains wider engagement and appreciation of the benefits on offer for a relatively low cost. This, he explains, can be defined as "wellness education".
The second market trend to catch Bennett's attention is a renewed focus on occupational health provision, an area close to Aon's heart having just launched an occupational health service. The experience of talking to clients about the themes running through healthcare benefits and risk products would be dramatically different he says than if you were to have the same conversation with an occupational health expert present.
The third emerging trend, he says, is the desire for more information and better business cases for initiatives. For example, if costs are increasing, it is important to know the cause, if it is a natural driver and whether firms should continue paying that cost.
Gap in the market
Regarding the launch of an occupational health service, Bennett says the market already has established expertise in areas such as funding insurance design, benefit design and customer service along with the delivery of cost and claims management, but there is less clarity around what is effective and what must be well-managed to avoid exposure.
There has been previous activity in the market regarding the launch of an occupational health benefits service but its delivery has confused people. The traditional concept of such an offering is a world away from today's market. "We work with a number of large organisations that invest heavily in their employees' health and ensure the services they already fund are delivered in a more effective and flexible way," he says.
"The role of occupational health is changing and the impacts and influence of sector professionals will widen. White collar workforces, that have no contact with traditional occupational health services unless something goes wrong, will benefit more from occupational health influenced or led services."
There is an increased burden on employers to expand wellbeing services because the cost to society will be more than it can afford. "Even if everyone's healthcare could be funded through taxation, there would still be a political point scoring scenario making life very difficult," Bennett adds.
All hands on deck
This could work to people's advantage in the future if everyone plays a role. Although there is no compulsion to offer healthcare in the UK and employers would not wish to see one develop, there has been a strengthening of rules and regulations.
Bennett explains Aon recently ran an omnibus survey which revealed people find sickness pay and the opportunity to return to work incredibly important, highlighting the significance of financial protection in today's market. "Financial stability is essential to ensure other lifestyle choices such as healthcare can be chosen," he says.
Independence and depth of expertise are the most important attributes consultants can have, he surmises. "The research and development around what is changing in the fast-paced healthcare market is invaluable to businesses that face similar difficulties with their own advancing products and industries. Ultimately as advisers, we are there to simplify complexities and align solutions to clients' needs."
While he may not be used to the profile offered by a COVER photoshoot, it is high time Bennett got used to it judging by how the employee market is shaping up.
CV: Alex Bennett
2006 - to date: Head of health consulting at Aon
1999 - 2005: Senior consultant and European principal at Mercer
1997 - 1999: Healthcare consultant at Sedgwick Noble Lowndes (Global).
The news that the ABI and British Medical Association (BMA) agreement on GP report (GPR) fees has broken down will usher in a period of uncertainty.
Lack of innovation investment in the UK insurance market has been highlighted by recognition of RGA's work in the US.
Protection business in 2012 and 2013 will be affected by events this year and some fundamental changes to the way customers policies are priced into the next. Richard Verdin explains.
Employee assistance programmes are in the spotlight due to a schizophrenic approach by government. But as Sue Weir points out, they are backed by solid research.
How will people buy insurance in future? Greg Becker visits the US for developments in online distribution.