The Catalyst

Meeting the Engagement Challenge

Mardi Burns

Mardi BurnsThroughout her decades in the employee benefits world, Mardi Burns has helped design, implement and manage the full spectrum of health and welfare benefit plans for countless employers. Burns is senior vice president and senior benefits consultant for Associated Benefits and Risk Consulting (ABRC). ABRC was formerly known as the Jabas Group until its client of 25 years, Associated Bank, purchased the organization in 2004.

Of the "three most challenging opportunities" for employers, Burns has found one is key – and it's also a major reason she recommended her own employer join the Business Health Care Group (BHCG). As you might expect, cost is right up there as a benefits challenge, but it is not the one she cites.

Long before engagement became a benefits buzzword, she recognized the "big challenge" was helping employees understand their benefits to motivate them to partner with their employer in managing health care costs.

A leading strategy

Burns and her organization have made employee engagement a tenet of their strategy for at least 25 years, developing a benefits education curriculum "way back in the days of overhead slides."

"We help employers manage the consumerism and engagement component of benefits to help their employees understand they need to be working [with their employer] on these challenges together," she says.

The other top challenge Burns recognizes is one that is directly related to engagement – devising a strategy that improves communication to employees and family members, particularly spouse/decision-makers. She believes the best communication strategy is one that fits into the employer's culture and uses a multi-faceted approach across all media that reaches dependents as well.

Burns works mostly with large, multi-sited employers but has also helped mid-sized and fully insured employers. One of the tools she and ABRC utilize for employers to understand the importance of employee engagement and communication is their strategic benefit planning process. The process identifies how to create a long-term strategy that addresses employers' major concerns.

"We ask the employer to identify people to participate in a type of SWOT analysis. Through that process, communication always comes up. I don't have to suggest it, they bring it up – because they know [it's an issue], as participants in employer benefits, as well as leaders on the benefit team."

In fact, a driving force behind Burn's recommendation to Associated Bank (and other employer clients) to join BHCG is its portfolio of communication resources.

"We like BHCG for its communication tools – like the consumer education modules and the online library of Premium-Tier 1 consumer marketing materials," she explains.

Burns is looking forward to scheduling a deeper dive into the library of employer-prepared communication materials BHCG offers its members. "That's one of the things that really resonated with me as I was looking at my clients who were candidates to join BHCG. Wouldn't it be great to have access to a library of communication materials prepared by employers for employers?"

BHCG continues to enhance its communication resources. Materials aimed at the medically homeless (those without a primary care physician relationship), as well as change management and opioid communication toolkits are being developed for use in the coming months.

Membership has its benefits

Burns and the ABRC consulting group are in a unique position to see the BHCG membership value proposition in action through Associated Bank's role as a member employer, effective January 1, 2018. As Burns recounts, the bank's senior leadership was very interested in becoming a member of an employer coalition – they recognized the considerable benefits of leveraged employer purchasing power and shared knowledge.

The bank had looked at other coalitions of varying scope, both regional and national. Because ABRC is independent and not locked into any one solution, the bank undertook a full RFP process with Burns and her team to look at its options. According to Burns, BHCG membership offers some distinct advantages for Associated Bank and her other employer clients.

Burns feels the opportunity to participate in a program run by employers for employers and being a part of a bigger movement with some of the largest employers in the state is significant. As is the chance to network, learn and look at what some of the most progressive employers are doing.

For Associated Bank, customer service was a major factor in tipping the scales in BHCG's favor. One of the bank's main locations is in Green Bay, which is also the location of the BHCG-dedicated UnitedHealthcare Advocate4Me customer service team. Burns believes the Advocate4Me model is a real asset and a significant resource in engaging and educating consumers.

Says, Burns, "The BHCG-dedicated Advocate4Me customer service model is local and a lot of our clients are in Wisconsin or the Midwest. In the BHCG service area, Green Bay, Wisconsin is just down the road. The Advocate4Me service model was very important and resonated well with my clients."

Burns believes Associated Bank's membership in BHCG will be an impetus for other employers in eastern Wisconsin to consider joining. "Associated Bank has a widely recognized name and a great reputation across BHCG's footprint."

About ABRC

ABRC is a multi-line insurance and Midwest-based consulting firm with 400 employees. They provide employee benefits, retirement plans, compliance, business insurance, risk management and individual insurance solutions from offices in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Mardi Burns works out of the ABRC offices in Kimberly and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. You may reach her at 920-628-8006 or

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