A different conversation Tim Doherty helps clients develop a strategic, long-term view


By Scott Wooldridge // Photography by Webb Chappell

Tim Doherty was a college student when he was recruited by insurance giant MetLife—and at first, he wasn’t interested. But after a mentor encouraged him, he decided to give it a shot. “As I learned about the industry, it became something I was passionate about,” he says. “I’ve never looked back. I love how dynamic our industry is, and how much you need to adapt as things change. It requires you to become a lifelong learner.”

A thirst for knowledge is something that Doherty sees as essential to success, for both his colleagues and clients. That quality, along with a track record of innovation and industry leadership, are key reasons why Doherty is our 2019 BenefitsPRO Broker of the Year.

From carrier to brokerage

After working on the carrier side with MetLife for two years, Doherty became a broker, eventually starting his own shop, Pinnacle HR Solutions. When the business began, he says, he worked with his team to reimagine the role of the broker based on the demands of the marketplace. “We had four key values,” he says. “To always be forward-thinking, to be authentic in everything we did, to be engaged with the client, and to raise the client’s expectations.

“Our goal was to meet with decisionmakers and have them walk away feeling not like they had just met with an insurance broker, but that they had met with an advisor,” he adds.

As a nod to that new type of relationship, Pinnacle’s motto became “Changing the Conversation,” underlining an approach that values new ideas, along with the notion that collaboration is more meaningful than a sales pitch.

The higher expectations at Pinnacle soon included how the firm looked for clients. Doherty says his agency became selective about the employers they work with. “We wanted a client that matched our personality.”

The world is not flat

Doherty says that early in his career, he felt the industry had convinced employers that the world was flat—that there was a set way of doing things, with little room for new ideas. “Rates go up and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can nibble around the edges, but it is what it is,” he says of the old mindset.

One of the ways to break the mold was to think more strategically, Doherty says. Instead of living from open enrollment to open enrollment, he encouraged businesses to develop a long-term vision. “Stop making this a 12-month, incremental decision,” he says of the approach. “This has to be multi-year strategy.”

Data analytics has further changed the dynamics of the industry, opening new possibilities in benefit management and cost control. Doherty notes that in some employer groups, just a few people can dramatically affect insurance claims. Data analytics allows businesses to take a closer look at their benefits and find ways to mitigate some of those costs. With a self-funded approach, Doherty has encouraged clients to use data from their third-party administrators and pair that with analytical tools.

“Data is often unmanaged; in the fully insured world, there’s very little incentive to manage the cost,” he says. “It’s a pass-through—they pay the big claims and just increase the premium the next year.

“Data is king,” Doherty adds. “CFOs are making data-driven decisions every day, in every part of their business except for benefits. Too often, they say, ‘we don’t have any data.’

“We try to convince them that the mousetrap that they’re in today—which is more often than not a fully insured plan—just doesn’t work. We then start to talk about ways to self-fund, which gives us the ability to pull in the data, to help manage and control costs.”

Direct contracting—a new solution

Among many innovative concepts in the industry today is the idea of direct contracting—when a self-funded plan contracts directly with providers who agree to supply services at lower prices.

“The carriers’ lack of progress in controlling health care costs through traditional networks has pushed employers and advisors to find alternative solutions,” Doherty says. “Many forward-thinking advisors are digging deeper into provider reimbursements and developing more creative ways to make a fair and reasonable payment for services.” This includes direct-contracting arrangements with providers, particularly for highly specialized care like joint replacements.

He gives an example from his own part of the country: “Here in Boston, we have a world-renowned facility that performs thousands of joint replacement procedures each year, at a higher quality and at half the cost of another hospital that performed less than 100 of the same procedures. Both facilities are treated the same in the traditional carrier network. Why would you want to leave it to chance that one of your members goes to the lower-quality, more expensive facility?” he asks. “Wouldn’t it make sense to have a direct contract with the high-performing facility?”

In a time of disruption, relationships still matter

Even though he welcomes the innovation and disruption that is now part of the industry, Doherty hasn’t lost sight of the importance of building relationships. But while it was the bread and butter of the industry in past years, Doherty believes it can’t be the only thing that a broker offers.

“Ultimately, I still think relationships matter and clients want to work with people they like,” he says. “The difference is, in the past all you needed was the relationship. Now, there’s too much at stake with compliance and escalating health care costs to let friendships trump working with a strategic advisor.”

The days of a broker getting by with good people skills and a generalist’s education are over, he adds. “Employers winning the battle on health insurance costs know they need to work with an advisor who is laser-focused on benefits, where that is their core competency.”

Still, the bottom line is working with clients on the common goal of providing benefits to employees. Education and communication continue to be very valuable to Pinnacle’s relationship with clients, according to Doherty. “Clients know they can count on us to keep them compliant, competitive, and properly educated,” he says. “We are able to achieve a great level of client confidence because of our expertise and our unrelenting dedication to finding the right solutions.”

“Clients know they can count on us to keep them compliant, competitive and properly educated.”

A good player—or a great teammate?

Doherty is a proponent of industry groups such as Health Rosetta and Q4i, which help independent brokers network and share ideas.

Rachel Miner, founder and owner of Thrive Benefits in Charlotte, North Carolina, has worked with Doherty through Q4i. She says his early adoption of innovative strategies allowed him to educate up-and-coming agents on those new concepts. “Tim was living the Health Rosetta mantra of doing what is right for the client long before they came on the scene. He has been beyond generous with his time and with sharing strategies that have worked for him with other brokers,” she says. “He has been a great resource for me; I can call him with any problem I’m having with a group, and he will brainstorm with me. He fundamentally believes in aligning his goals with clients and truly sits on the same side of the table as them.”

For Doherty’s part, he uses a sports analogy to describe collaborations within the industry. A former hockey player, Doherty talks about being a team player when asked about working with other brokers.

“If you look around at any sport, you’ll find a lot of good teams, filled with really good players. The difference is that great teams are full of great teammates. As an industry, we can either be a loose collection of good players, each going his or her own way, or we can be a community of great teammates. Groups like Q4i and the Health Rosetta give an independent broker a community full of great teammates; people who openly share, collaborate and challenge each other to change the conversation around health care.”

A background in service

Being a team player is a key part of Doherty’s personal story. A former hockey standout as a student at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, Massachusetts, Doherty continues to be active at the school, which has a motto of “Love God, work hard, and take care of one another.”

“Sebs is a New England prep school with a strong hockey tradition,” he says. “My father was a hockey captain there and is now the CFO; I was a hockey captain; my son was hockey captain two years ago; and my brother played there and now teaches AP Government and is the assistant hockey coach. I feel like I’m the person I am today because I had teachers and coaches at Sebs that believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let them down—the old Abraham Lincoln quote.”

Doherty has paid back that trust by serving on the alumni association, and by serving as President of the Board of Trustees, of which he is still a member. “I graduated from Sebs, but I never really left.”

Dedication and service have been important values for Doherty, and those values serve as an anchor in an industry where change has become the norm. With the uncertainty brought on by regulatory challenges and disruptive technology, Doherty says that being creative about finding solutions will help the industry weather the current storm.

“Brokers need to take the initiative with these innovations; people are solving these problems in the trenches day to day. Going forward, I think we’re always going to have some form of employer-sponsored plan, and there’s always going to be a role for strategic-thinking advisors.”

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