I meet Michelle Bishop for coffee 28-stories up into the London skyline in the iconic Willis building opposite Lloyd’s in the Square Mile.
The organisation’s London HQ is, of course, an impressive structure. And Willis has, of course, an impressive heritage in insurance. After all, founded in 1828, it is widely regarded as the world’s oldest insurance broker.
And now it is setting its sights firmly on dominating the UK health insurance and employee benefits space – and that includes the ultra-competitive ‘UK’ international private medical insurance(iPMI) market.
Recent weeks have seen news of a global mega-merger between Willis and Towers Watson followed by the surprise announcement that it is also set to acquire PMI Health Group, one of Britain’s largest specialist healthcare and risk intermediary and consulting firms.
But while the game-changing deals – which are both subject to the obligatory green light from the regulator – may have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, the intention of Willis to shake up the sector have in fact been rumbling for some time. And iPMI – and Bishop’s role in that push – is central to that.
A global reach
Bishop joined Willis in October 2013 at a time when the organisation had already decided to focus more on the growing international health and employee risk needs of existing and potential clients.
“Willis decided that with its global reach, its licensing capabilities – and the fact that the political and economic environment was changing – that international medical insurance was an area that was growing and one that we are naturally aligned to,” Bishop says.
The global reach of Willis puts Bishop and her colleagues based in the UK in an enviable position from a consulting point of view, given the vast resources she can tap into across the organisation’s geographical reach.
“It is one of our key strengths and certainly a reason why I was drawn to join the organisation,” she says. “Having the ability to provide compliant advice across all of the locations in which members are based is crucial. We have excellent working relationships with our colleagues overseas so we have both that local understanding of how expats might be impacted but also that international understanding.”
As things stand – ahead of the formal integration of Towers Watson and PMI Health Group following regulatory approval – the Willis iPMI team is split into a new business team led by Chris Metz and a client relationship team headed up by Peter Murphy, both reporting into Tony Powis, CEO of Willis UK Employee Benefits.
“We are specifically structured that way so that we create stability for our clients on a long-term basis,” Bishop says. “We want to give them dedicated resource that’s not distracted by new business as it comes in. But on the flipside we also ensure that our new business people – and that includes myself – are specialists as well, who understand the challenges that our clients are facing. It means we’re being consultative from day one right through the process.”
Prior to Willis, Bishop got to grips with the basics of healthcare consulting in a “relatively junior” role with Mercer.
“That’s where I formed the basis of my knowledge,” she says. “I grew from being in a very administrative role into a more analytical one.”
Then, a spell at Aetna International gave her insight on the other side of the fence, from the perspective of the insurance provider.
“The provider side of things gave me the understanding of the practicalities of the market, how things work, who does what, how they do it and how they formulate their approach and what their target areas are,” she says. “It makes you a slightly different type of consultant. Those who haven’t had the provider experience perhaps see things in a different way and in a different light.”
That perspective is critical, especially in the world of iPMI which can be a minefield when it comes to licensing and regulation.
“I find that it’s an advantage in that I have a slightly more in-depth understanding of the complexities of a provider’s ability to deliver in certain areas,” Bishop continues.
“Once you have seen and experienced how systems operate, the conversations that you have with your legal/compliance guys around licensing and how to cover certain individuals, you gain a broader appreciation of the actual ability to deliver. You gain a broader appreciation of where providers are comfortable and where they’re not.”
That cross-discipline approach is perhaps epitomised to some degree in an exclusive proposition that Willis brought to market last year – and which features in the shortlist for this year’s Health Insurance Awards.
The proposition, designed for clients with between 1-99 globally mobile employees is a tripartite arrangement set up between Willis, Now Health International – the cover is underwritten by AXA – and Healix International.
According to Bishop, the arrangement is the first plan to include pre-assignment screening “as standard”.
While Now Health administers the plan, Healix carries out the screening. The rationale, Bishop says, is that many of the illnesses and health-related problems suffered by business travellers and expats are both predictable and preventable.
Large numbers of globally mobile employees, individuals and their families are sent overseas with pre-existing medical conditions and little or no knowledge about how those conditions may best be managed in their destination countries, Bishop says.
The result? Disruption, failed assignments, serious illness, unplanned medical evacuations – and massive costs to employers.
The Willis plan gives access to online pre-assignment medical screening for employees and their dependants, providing management information on medical risks associated with the location, specific to the employee and their family, prior to the assignment taking place and information on the potential long-term cost implications for the organisation.
It also gives an “auditable” process through which employers can fulfil their duty of care requirements by facilitating pre-trip advice and guidance which is specific to the individual’s medical needs and location of assignment.
Bishop says there are few up-front risk management propositions on the market that are specific to an employee’s health.
“Some clients might have some health support and they might do the typical vaccination checks and so-on but there’s no real advice about what happens when they go out there,” she says. “So if an individual employee has a pre-existing condition he or she always wants to know what the impact on them is of that. In some of the countries they won’t necessarily offer the same type of drug that an individual might be taking at the moment. This tool is effectively saying ‘okay, tell me about you and your family’.
It’s important to remember that family are just as important to an assignment as the individual, and they’re often missed when you have just a normal health provider.
“And it’s not just the cost of assignment failure it’s all the other exposures that come along with it, the duty of care pieces and employer’s liability exposure too.”
What, though, does the arrangement mean for Willis in terms of its relationships with other providers? Bishop dismisses any concerns that Willis would be tempted to channel clients into that particular scheme unless it is absolutely the right fit for them.
“We’ve got an open market approach,” she says. “The key piece for us is around compliance. Every client has a different set of objectives, so we are very fair about how we utilise the proposition. It’s open to clients, it’s another option to them and one that gives them something that the general market doesn’t.
“There are still some clients who either want to stick with a very traditional solution or who have a very bespoke requirement in a certain geography that only one or two providers perhaps can offer. Because we’ve got such a varied book across such a wide number of industries we can be whole of market still and the client’s objective will always be key.
“We are such a large organisation anyway so there’s a volume that we achieve naturally already. It’s really about creating a solution that’s right for the clients and giving them an alternative that perhaps the market itself can’t offer.”
The broad variety of insurance carriers that are active in the world of iPMI and international employee benefits, especially when compared to the domestic UK market, is hugely beneficial for clients – and rewarding from a consulting perspective, Bishop says.
“Providers each have something very different to offer,” she explains. “They might have some additional service lines that they can offer, or employee assistance programmes or wellness propositions. Or they might be offering medical and group life. They might have a geographic presence or full licence capability or an admitted solution that perhaps others don’t. That’s what makes it all so interesting.”
MICHELLE BISHOP: BIOGRAPHY
Michelle Bishop is a highly experienced expatriate benefits expert, with nearly 10 years’ experience as an employee benefits practitioner.
She works within the Willis UK Employee Benefits team and is responsible for client development, particularly in international healthcare.
Michelle’s specific areas of expertise include designing, restructuring and implementing global healthcare arrangements, delivering corporate and member communications and global compliance considerations. Prior to Willis, she held roles at Aetna International and Mercer.
This article is available in our latest In Focus supplement on iPMI which is available as a free download here.