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A closer look at The Aspen Group's employee benefits strategy

Hear about The Aspen Group's employee benefits strategy and why the organization opted to provide a consolidated Pre-tax Account program via Forma.

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An in-depth discussion on TAG's employee benefits strategy

Headquartered in Chicago, The Aspen Group (TAG) has been a prominent figure in the providing dental care nationwide for 20+ years and is expanding its footprint to include vision, pet care, and more. Focused on providing easy access to a broader range of healthcare needs, the workforce of 20,000 and then some works in various functions nationwide.

We sat down with Stephanie Brazil, Senior Benefits Operations Manager to hear about the company's employee benefits strategy and how the group is providing broader, more accessible care to its workforce.

You can watch the full discussion or read the transcript below including how and why The Aspen Group opted to provide a consolidated Pre-tax Account program.

Get a closer look at The Aspen Group's employee benefits strategy

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Hi, Stephanie. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about the Aspen Group. To kick things off, what I'd like to do is to ask you to provide an overview of The Aspen Group or TAG's workforce and the company's benefit strategy.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): So our workforce TAG is very diverse. So it's comprised of various needs and preferences. We have different categories of team members, part-time, full-time employees. We also have various brands that have different needs.

And so our primary goal is to provide a benefits package that's modern and flexible, customizable, and aligned with the evolving needs of our team members. Additionally, constantly reviewing those partnerships and collaborations to make sure that the organizations we partner with align with our values since they're interacting with our team members on a daily basis.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): So I'd like to learn a little bit about your starting point. And if you could just take a second to walk through your benefits, what you had in place, and specifically your pre-tax programs and what led you to make a change.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): We had one vendor for HSA. We had one vendor for our FSA and commuter lines. An additional vendor for a COBRA as well. So not only was it a complex experience for routine members And additionally, was it administratively heavy task internally. It was not a good look tone and feel for our team members, nor was it for our internal team because they were trying to figure out how to try to make a unified experience with three different vendors. And it wasn't fairing well.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Would you mind expanding upon that a little bit further in terms of what your experience was for your employees and how did that influence your decisioning in terms of, you know, wanting to consolidate your offerings?

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): It's very difficult for someone who's learning all of the jargon in the benefits space. They're learning how to navigate any of the benefits that they have elected, without doing that and having some consolidation there, you. You make it complicated for team members to be able to have access to things such as, you know, pre-tax accounts that can help a lot of people who don't realize that they can go ahead and put money pre-tax to help support that daycare for their child, that they can go ahead and help support paying for those medications and those deductibles. So really having that consolidation that provides them the entire package is imperative.

We didn't have that before. We had multiple vendors that we were leveraging for multiple aspects of the program when it comes to our pre-tax accounts. And the feedback that we received is that it was complicated for our team members. So, like I said, it was top of mind for us to adjust that and correct that to make it more experiential.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): So one thing that is just kind of like continues to, emerge in our conversation here is talking about partnerships. So they clearly play a very important role. If you could walk through what your approach is and what you were looking for in an ideal partner, I think that'll be really helpful just in understanding what your objectives were and how you set out to accomplish that.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): So making sure that we have partnerships that are in seeing the entire team member. You know, it's about you. What is your journey? You know, it's a lot of times and we tend to think of our team members that are inner organizations, and not holistically. They have partners. They have children. They have furry friends that all comprise their unit and their family, the extensions of that with grandparents and in-laws, and all of those different things that uniquely make them.

So it's important that we support the entire you. And so that is something ensuring that we have partnerships in collaborations that are aligned with our diversity values or transparency values and really seeing the whole you.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Recognizing the fact that you have such a diverse workforce with so many different needs that you've got to kind of account for, how do you go providing an experience that's flexible enough to accommodate all those variances.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): As I'm looking to work on a Total Rewards package in the benefits space, it's always, once again, looking at lots of different facet things. What are the team members that we're serving? How are they going to be interacting? We are going to have some people that are going to want to be on a computer. Some people are going to want to be mobile. And so ensuring that we're operating with partners that have a good look tone and feel. They have an intuitive user interface is paramount because I want the experience for our team members to not be disjointed. It needs to be seamless and really to utilization adoption and for them to have the entire value of those different partnerships that we have within the organizations and the offering If they don't know how to use it, if it's not user friendly and it's not engaging, they're not going to do it.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): What do you have in mind to kind of help uncomplicate things and build a really good experience for your workforce?

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): There is, I think, a huge responsibility for anyone that's in the benefits space to aid in consumerism. There's lots of jargon that is not native to team members. People don't know what out-of-pocket maximums are. What is an HSA? How does that work? And so until we empower our team members with the information, and then aid them in the journeys based on the strategic partner that we have within our organization.

We're putting them at a disadvantage because knowledge is power. And so in the absence of that and in ensuring that they have that comprehension, how to best navigate that for their unique situation. We've missed the mark.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): You make an excellent point there and that, understanding how benefits work can be really complicated and confusing. So having a plan in place to kind of simplify and educate people is an important piece of the puzzle.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): The education that we now are going to have we're putting it forefront in collaboration with Forma is something that really is going to move the needle. Not only are the team members going to have one centralized place to be able to go to navigate the different offerings that they have, but there's a robust collaboration on education and ensuring that know the who, what, where, when, and why when it comes to these products.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): When you're going through them, you have decided we want a consolidated offering let's go to market, see who we can, you know, who's good, who's bad, what does could look like? What, you know, Why did you make the change to Forma? And ultimately, what led you to determine, like, this was what you wanted, the provider that made the most sense for you?

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): Forma has impressed us with its commitment to customer service. It has an extremely user-friendly interface, and its ability to adapt to our unique needs has been paramount. The experience has been really positive with the support that have in understanding because of the complexities of our organization, we really need a partner that's malleable and to be able to mold to our specific needs to support our population appropriately. And that is something that I've been blown away with is how much support we are receiving, not only internally for my team, but externally at that experience for our team members.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Historically, how does that kind of line up against your previous experience? I realized you did have disparate vendors before, but, like, you getting that same level of service when you had an individual provider, individual provider, individual provider.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): When you have complexities in your operating model, it's really important to be able to have the ability to niche in. And so the ability to niche in on the level that we have now is much different than our capacity before. It's tough out there right now understandably from any organization to justify investment in anything.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): So and then making a change. And so how did you go about, you know, getting that approval and just saying, like, here's what I think we should do, why we should do it. The investment and, you know, understanding that.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): So with making this move, we conducted a thorough analysis of our benefits platform landscape, went ahead, and presented business cases highlighting. How are we going to gain efficiencies?

Are we going to be able to have cost savings with having those efficiencies and most importantly improve team member satisfaction? And so with that, how having a data-driven approach really helped us gain approval from key stakeholders.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): When you shift to a consolidated centralized location that offers good support and can kind of check all those boxes for you, but it's also it makes it maximizes the dollar. So you get the most of the dollar spend because we're saving admin time because we would be, you know, a streamlined approach because you're driving engagement.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): You have to balance the financial vitality of the organization's ability to provide a best-in-class offerings and a people-centered offerings with what that spend is. So this move, of course, is top of mind, was did we tick all of the boxes for team members yes. Did we tick the boxes for our internal team members that are going to have to nurture this relationship and administer it? Yes. But ultimately, as well, were we able to recognize appropriate savings to make sure that we had a long-term partnership.

And you see that I said it highlight partnership, because ultimately, I think that you can get to a place that you need to financially for an organization with the appropriate partner. And so that is something that was really powerful in the negotiations with Forma was they wanted to learn about us as an organization and our why. Why are we doing this? And our why is centralizing our team members. But then also understanding that we had to do the business cases. We had to get executive leadership buy-in, and we had to do in a way that maintained financial vitality for the organization so we can continue being in full team member-centric.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Excellent. I mean, that's also, like, something I think that's really important when you're looking for to bring on something new that you've got that reliable partner so that way it's not just immediate. You've got that long-term play of we know we can trust them. So we're going to renew, and then it saves you time and energy to have to continue to do this.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): Definitely. It goes back to that partnership. You know, you really do want to provide stability in this space and predictability. As much as you can for your team members. And so with having the appropriate team supporting you that really understands you allows that predictability and allows for the continue the ability to pour in and have an evolution of the program and support that you have for your team members.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Very interesting, true. So, benefits are meant to be beneficial. This is something that I say all the time and, you know, I gotta imagine you agree. So how are you working to ensure that the benefits that you're offering are actually being used?

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): We're constantly monitoring metrics, from different lenses as well. We're just looking at it really you know, what are SLAs and how our team members being supported with the partnerships that we have, looking at how our internal team members are being with SLAs as well. But, really, we're trying to leverage the data to support other modalities of communication within the organization and making sure that we're empowering our team members and meeting them where they're at and their benefits education journey. And this modern day of fast quick now is making sure that we have those bite-sized bits of information going now, pushing you a text message, doing some gamification to learn about HSA's FSAs, having call to actions in those interactions.

But then we have people that don't learn that way, so ensuring that also doing email communications and doing webinars, doing one-on-ones with our team member care center, and allowing people to call in to have their questions answered. So that way that we monitor the program is, is it being utilized. And is our communications and our education strategies and supports to our team members on their health and well-being, is it resonating? And you can see that in those metrics.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Very interesting. Because it's, like, you're it's, like, omnichannel, and it's not, like, one and done. And evergreen. You want to have that kind of continued touch points.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): In my mind, my hope is for any organization that I have pleasure to be a part of people's lives that they may not even know who I and my team are, but know that we're advocating for them, and they want the we want the best for them and the success of whatever whoever stands behind them in their journey while they're in our organization.

I don't want them running fire drills at into the year. I want them enjoying their family during the holidays and getting ready to prepare for a new year. So I really feel having that responsibility to be monitored and actively engaging those team members throughout the higher year. So really trying to meet people where they're at in different seasons that already existed the year is a really powerful way to help people in utilization.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Creative use cases for various populations. I think you shared with me, like, for an FSA in specific, like, if you've got an hourly worker, how they can use it. I'd love to just hear about that because I think that's also, like, the unique thing from an education perspective and awareness that not everyone realizes.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): There are hourly team members who may not realize that they can really bring home the same amount in their page check that they're used to, purely by using a Pre-tax Account. But then on the flip side of that, you could have an executive who to leverage an HSA as a vehicle for investments and being able to do that. So I think that in this journey, have to make sure that you know your population very well and give them the different use cases, and find the points that people can connect within those use cases.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): So with regards to metrics you've set now that you're in the process of making the change...Well, first, how's the process going?

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): The process is going phenomenal. So we have a really great implementation support. She has taken the time because of the complexities of our organization to do one-on-ones with me. To make sure that I'm poised to be able to support my team appropriately, the branding communications, everything's coming along. There's been lots of support for our integration specialists, in-house. We actually have two different payroll systems. So we're actually doing two implementations and two open enrollment So there's even more complexities there, and the Forma team has been able to navigate them seamlessly.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): Awesome. And just as an admin, I think another thing that can be such a hassle with any sort of benefit, but specifically pretext because you have IRS involvement with clients. Yes.

Stephanie Brazil (TAG): Yes. Definitely having a partner that is at the forefront of compliance is huge. You have to have that. And you have to trust in their ability to be able to support you in a compliant fashion because their success is your success and vice versa if you don't have someone that's, you know, top-notch in that space. In the pretax space, we're looking to kind of bring forward to people who are considering it, like, what makes Forma, like, super special. The Forma of for me, what makes it so special is a humanistic aspect.

The UX to me, it's really hard to impress me on a UX. I'm going to be quite honest. But the user interface, I thought was brilliant. I could really see people who did not know how to really navigate within a system, being extremely intuitive. And that was, first and foremost, one of the most important things for me. The second part of it is if you if I guess it's being an HR person or a people team person, but I just I love people, and I want to be there in support of them and their journey I have a unique journey. I have twins that have special needs, which means I really pre-tax accounts when it comes to their therapy sessions and ensuring that we have the appropriate after-school care, all of those different things.

But it has been a pretty tumultuous process just even for me personally when it comes to using, like, my FSA card. So not having approvals at point of service, those sorts of things make it difficult when you're already trying to navigate complexities in your own personal journey.

And that was the other thing that really blew me away about Forma is the amount of time that was spent to the humanistic aspect to ensure that people have automatic approvals when they go to medical providers in a variety of different realms, whether It was pharmaceutical, or it was a primary care, or it was a specialty. Having that, I think, is revolutionary in the space, at least for my experience. And so that is just a relief for people. And I think sometimes as well that plays into those fire drills at the end of the year, if people all trying to get it in because you're trying to find your receipt. Did you submit it appropriately? It got pushed back to you. You didn't do the right form, and that friction has been removed.

And that is why I've been so drawn to Forma. Because not only am I removing the friction for myself personally and my ability to show up as a parent the way that I want to, It's also allowed me as an HR professional to be able to remove the friction for all of my team members and their families as well.

Stefanie Kulberg (Forma): As we, come to a close here. I just want to take a moment to thank you again, Stephanie. This has been incredibly enlightening and very helpful just in terms of hearing about what you're offering, why you're offering in, and also kind of getting a sense the pretext landscape and how it can actually be less complex and easy. So thank you so much.

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