EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 2 of an interview featured in the July edition of InsuranceNewsNet Magazine between InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman and American Council of Life Insurers CEO Susan Neely.
This year has been the worst of all possible worlds for life insurance, an industry that depends on predictability.
Historically low interest rates are making it painful even to attempt projecting returns that will support products and sustain remotely attractive crediting rates. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the primary age demographic that the industry serves, upsetting mortality tables. To top it all off, the face-to-face meetings that drive the industry’s sales are either banned or unwanted.
Pack all that into a locked-down national capital filled with constant knock-down partisan battles and you have a good idea of what the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) is dealing with these days.
But ACLI has a seasoned pro, Susan Neely, as its president and chief executive officer. She has been working in government and trade associations for nearly four decades. Neely was one of the architects of the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration.
Although she started with ACLI just about two years ago, she had been involved with health insurance in the past as an executive with the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) for nearly a decade, leaving to help with the 9/11 response. While with HIAA, Neely led the “Harry and Louise” advertising campaign that so famously helped end President Bill Clinton’s effort to revamp health insurance in 1994.
The life insurance industry could not have asked for a more able defender than Neely in these times of historic challenges. In Part 2 of a conversation with Publisher Paul Feldman, Neely discusses the important issues the industry faces this year, how agents can help, and whether we can expect a “Harry and Louise”-style campaign in the near future.
FELDMAN: In this election year, what are some of the big issues that you see that people should be focusing on?
NEELY: First of all, I’d say summer is the perfect time to remind everybody to pay attention to the election. We’ve had a lot on our minds and our plates in these recent months with COVID-19 and just keeping businesses afloat, keeping families safe.
There will be an election in this country in November, and elections always have consequences in terms of who is in charge coming out of it, and the direction they want to take the country or the state.
No. 1, people need to pay attention, vote, participate. We’re certainly talking to all our members about hosting. If you can’t have a candidate for Congress or governor or Senate to your business to talk in person to your employees, you can certainly set it up virtually — like we’re about to do with the minority leader [Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Ga.]. That’s really important to do; people should not lose sight of that.
In our experience over many years in politics and policy, the time that politicians are paying the most attention is often when they’re running for office. It’s very important to get out there and talk about the value proposition that this industry provides, and establish how relevant and essential we are to the nation’s financial security.
As we think about where things might go in 2021, and the election will certainly affect this, there’s going to be a big challenge to pay the bill on what the country has needed to do to shore people up during the pandemic. Taxes and the sources of revenue that Congress turns to will be a big debate. There will be significant revenue shortfalls. There already are in many states.
There will be issues like premium taxes that come into play. We pay premium taxes now, but we don’t want any misunderstanding about the impact if those rise.
Those are the kinds of things you need to be in there educating, reminding people of.
There will also be a discussion about gaps in average Americans’ financial security, the gaps in retirement savings and paid family medical leave, and the challenges facing particularly women in communities of color. These are the kinds of topics that are getting discussed. That will be part of the election debate, and that will be a big focus coming out of the election.
Those are some of the things everybody needs to be paying attention to. We make ourselves relevant in these states by having ideas, by having solutions. Not by saying no, or don’t touch us; but by raising awareness of what we already do for family financial security and how we can do more of it and why we need to operate healthy businesses — whether you’re a producer or a carrier — in order to do all those things.
That’s where our fundamental message and value proposition are, telling that to candidates before they get elected, and being full-throated after the election.
Producers are just so essential to our advocacy, because nobody tells a story like them. That’s just all part of it, and we’re going to have to work together like never before. We’re going to have a lot of opportunities in the policy world, but we’re going to have a lot of challenges.
FELDMAN: How do we get more producers involved to help tell that story? What are some of the things you are working on?
NEELY: Let’s use our virtual connectivity to make sure we’re all on the same page about what’s happening. That allows us to make sure people are armed with the toolkits, the messages, the data, the arguments that producers can enhance with their own stories, which are the most powerful way of telling things.
I will brag about Jill [Kozeny, senior vice president, communications and public affairs] and some of the tools she’s developed to do this. We have a really state-of-the-art grassroots network now that we can use to share information and engage with those producers and key up opportunities to talk to the governor or state legislature or a member of Congress as needed, participate in social media. So much of the conversations now that affect policy are out there in the social media discussions, and we’re very poised to be part of that now.
Those are all not difficult ways to participate, maybe easier than people think to participate, because it doesn’t require a trip to Washington or even a state capital in order to advance issues.
Those are ways that people can help. We’re certainly telling the industry story. We have a Meeting The Moment campaign that’s already reached 1.5 million people. These are people, congressional staff, state insurance commissioners and state legislators, and others, so that will continue.
We’d like to fold-in agent stories as part of how we’re reaching people. That’s another way that we want to help amplify the agents’ stories and how what they do, real people, makes a difference with family financial security. Those are the stories that resonate with lawmakers and regulators.
Those are some of the ways we can be engaged more, and try to shift the tides back. I can see us needing advocacy training sessions for agents to advance specific issues at the state capital or Congress — having the training sessions that get effective messages and arguments, how to personalize them. I think those will be tools that we add on as a way to engage.
FELDMAN: You were actively involved with the Harry and Louise campaign, do you see something like that for life insurance?
NEELY: It’s a different day in a wonderful way. There’s the power of social media, and to push out your message in a sophisticated, systemic way is so beyond what was done in the 1990s when television was this big revolution to use in an issue campaign. That sounds like the Dark Ages, doesn’t it?
We aspire to strong, positive solution-oriented messages so that we negate the need to do a more hard-hitting advocacy campaign such as Harry and Louise, where we were actively pointing out that there were flaws in what was being proposed and there was a better way. We were successful at making a lot of people aware outside the industry about the impact the proposal would have on their health coverage. It was a pretty aggressive campaign to defeat something.
We’d like to be equally effective at advancing positions on retirement security as we were with the SECURE Act and on paid family medical leave.
How can we have more of the private sector involved, as opposed to less of the private sector and more government? How can the life insurance industry be in an even bigger position to provide this coverage that’s essential to family financial security? What does the tax code need to do to support that?
We are getting involved much earlier than we did back in the Harry and Louise days, in the industry, to tell our story and figure out positions that allow us to be part of the solution so that we mitigate the need to be forcefully and visibly against something.
That being said, I’ve learned in my years of working in policy and politics, never hesitate to be loud and proud about why we think something is wrong, and why we think something will hurt our ability to do what we do for American consumers.
We will be prepared to be aggressive if we think something would harm our ability to support the American family and American family financial security. Hopefully we’ll be able to spend our resources and all our energy to tell stories around that, and what our value proposition is to the American economy and consumer.