By Zach Wallens, Director of Content and Communications, Ideon
The HR and benefits technology (bentech) ecosystem has exploded in recent years, with billions in venture capital investment driving innovation and new players in the space.
That’s left insurance carriers with a strategic and technology challenge: how do we partner and connect with dozens of bentechs, ensuring brokers and members have a great experience across the platforms they use today?
Ted Phillips, Sun Life’s AVP, Distribution Digital Center of Excellence, tackles these challenges every day. Ideon spoke with Ted about Sun Life’s tech partnership strategy, the value of “enhanced” API connectivity, and their new partnership with Ideon.
The below interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IDEON: What’s your role at Sun Life?
TED PHILLIPS: I lead a team that’s responsible for the strategy and execution of our benefits technology (bentech) platform partnerships. We’re looking to create new partnerships, bring them to market, and grow premium through these relationships. Through Sun Life Link, we work with our accelerator team on building out API connectivity, and our data operations team, which takes the connectivity we build and operationalizes it.
Our ultimate objective is to make benefits easier to manage — to remove headaches that are often felt in managing ancillary products. We want to streamline benefits administration, billing, and everything in between.
How has your partnership strategy evolved recently?
We’ve transformed our partnership strategy for three reasons: First, there’s an expectation now—among members, brokers, and employers—that technology works seamlessly. It’s incumbent upon Sun Life to make sure the benefits experience is great for everyone and that we meet their expectations.
Second, technology has advanced quite dramatically over the past 2-3 years. APIs and enhanced connectivity are the hot topics of today. Most of the bentech ecosystem are working toward some level of enhanced API connectivity.
Third, the bentech ecosystem is far more complex and nuanced than a few years ago. Before, there were benefits administration platforms (BenAdmins), but now there are many more layers and segments within our ecosystem: HCM, proposal tools, quote-to-enroll, broker tech, resellers, and more.
What does that complexity mean for your team?
In 2019, the global investment in HR tech was $5B. In 2020, it was $17B. What that creates is a whole host of companies that are extremely valuable, like Ideon, and others that are just getting their idea off the ground. For us, the challenge is making the right decisions on which bentech platforms to partner with.
We’re always evaluating two things: which segments of the ecosystem do we want to work with, and how can we connect with them? Sun Life can’t take in every connection request we receive from bentech platforms. Middleware like Ideon allows us to multiply our team’s impact by increasing the number of platforms we can connect to.
Sun Life recently partnered with Ideon to enhance your data exchange capabilities with bentech platforms. How does better connectivity affect your clients?
It’s all about making benefits easier. APIs and enhanced connectivity enable us to streamline eligibility, benefits administration, enrollment, etc., and that saves hundreds of hours for our brokers and clients.
We find that when employer groups are on platforms, especially those with which we have enhanced connections, they have access to more Sun Life products and better benefits education experiences. Also, with better connectivity, the enrollment and administration process is faster and more accurate, leading to fewer claims and billing issues.
Let’s talk more about that. How do APIs improve data accuracy?
Technology, including APIs and enhanced connectivity, allows us to identify errors and correct them before they become significant client issues.
It starts with making sure benefits products are set up correctly on platforms. We then use APIs to ensure enrollment eligibility is completed quickly and accurately, to make sure benefits are available when they’re needed.
As enhanced connectivity becomes commonplace, there will be tremendous value in having more accurate data connections. It’s not just about speed — accuracy is just as important.
Does this help Sun Life’s operational team, too?
Absolutely, there’s a big impact on carriers. The Ideon system creates better data accuracy — which may equate to fewer support calls, fewer billing issues, and fewer claim issues. That can have a huge effect on the industry: we’ll all be much better off if we aren’t using paper and email to solve and reconcile these data errors. With better connectivity, they might not be issues at all.
We’ve talked a lot about carrier-bentech partnerships. How else is the industry working together?
There’s beginning to be a collaborative mentality in the benefits industry. Data accuracy and data exchange are industry-wide challenges, and neither will be solved by one carrier alone.
LIMRA is a great example of industry participants and even competitors working together to solve these challenges. There’s a mentality amongst a group of individuals that we need to fix this as an industry. If we do, everyone will be better for it.
Final question: Besides API connectivity, in what other areas is Sun Life investing in technology?
Sun Life is, first and foremost, an insurance company. But we have developed proprietary technology that provides a modern client experience. Sun Life Onboard, for example, is a digitally enhanced onboarding experience. Our Benefits Explorer tool helps educate members on benefits pre-enrollment and throughout the client lifecycle.
But it’s a balance. We also need to be where our clients are. As we’ve talked about, Sun Life has invested significantly in API-powered partnerships with bentechs in the market. Ideon is a big part of that.
We don’t think of these as separate buckets — in-house vs. external investment. We look at it holistically and invest accordingly. Ultimately, we want to make benefits easier to enroll, manage, and administer, on platforms and throughout the benefits ecosystem. We do it by developing technology and through partnerships with companies like Ideon.