Bernard Health taking the guesswork out of health insurance

Friday, February 17, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 7
By Jeannie Naujeck


Bernard Health began with a mascot and a mission: to be the world’s most trusted advisor when it comes to helping people plan for their health care.

Ten years later, the mission is the same but its methods have changed.

Featuring a logo of a St. Bernard and the motto “Rescuing you from healthcare confusion,” Bernard Health is growing into a national brand and a Nashville tech success story, with three core lines of business.

It’s a health care consulting service that provides flat-fee advice to individuals and families both remotely and face-to-face at retail stores; a health care benefits brokerage serving small to medium sized businesses, and a technology company that markets BerniePortal, a software tool that helps businesses conduct human resources functions like payroll, timekeeping, and benefits administration online.

“We think Bernard Health can be a multi-growth story but yes, we are a health care tech company,” says Ryan McCostlin, a top company executive whose title is, democratically, “Team Member.”

That part of the business is growing the most lately, as companies transition from paper to digital storage of documents and look to benefits brokers for more than just insurance plans for their employees but for legal, financial and regulatory advice in the ever-changing world of health care.

McCostlin says that’s where Bernard Health’s field experience gives it an edge. The company started out as a consultant for employers looking to incorporate tools like health savings accounts into their health benefits. But it quickly identified an unfilled niche serving individuals.

“Originally our go-to-market strategy was to focus on helping small- to medium-sized employers do a better job of managing benefits, but we realized that while employers aren’t always getting great advice, individuals and families get almost no advice,” McCostlin points out.

“We got questions from employees of our clients around COBRA and Medicare and how individual health insurance works. And there was really no place reliable where we could send those people.”

So, they created it.

Bernard Health opened its first storefront in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood in 2010. It now has three stores in Nashville and one each in Austin, Atlanta, and Indianapolis. Staff do not work on commission so they have no incentive to sell a particular health plan, only to help customers find the right coverage at the best price.

The demand for advice only grew after the signing of the Affordable Care Act and the launch of state health insurance exchanges where individuals, families, and small businesses can shop online for health plans, and it helped Bernard Health grow.

That experience of listening to thousands of individual customers and solving real-world problems in the retail stores has also helped the company develop BerniePortal into a superior software product for businesses.

“There are companies that are strictly tech that have tried to create software to solve similar problems, but they are not as close to the problems as Bernard Health has been over the last 10 years,” McCostlin says.

“We’ve been in the weeds.”

Only about 10 million people buy their own insurance, compared to 150 million Americans who get health care coverage through an employer, December data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows. But McCostlin thinks that will change.

“The macro trend in health insurance is that the U.S. is going to start seeing a transition away from employer-based coverage to individual-based coverage,” McCostlin says.

“That’s why we built a business around it.”

That transition away from employer-provided health insurance hasn’t happened yet, as some health policy analysts had predicted. But continuing uncertainty in the health insurance market, and the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, all but guarantees robust demand for health care advice.

“There is an opportunity to build a national brand around helping employers, individuals and families and benefits brokers make better decisions around health care,” McCostlin explains of future growth plans.

“We get questions around what health insurance is going to look like in the next 12 to 24 months, and we are reading the tea leaves as best we can and keeping up with proposed legislation, but our first priority is helping people make the best decision based on the information that’s available today,” McCostlin says.

“The dust is going to settle eventually, and as there is more certainty around what shape this will ultimately take, Bernard Health is going to continue to be there to help them no matter what happens.”