New York Life’s Digital Reimagination of Intermediated Life Insurance Sales

IIR talks to Alex Cook Senior Vice President, Head of Strategic Capabilities and member of the New York Life’s Executive Management Committee.

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What does it mean to be a modern mutual life insurance company? For New York Life it means a continued commitment to providing the advice and guidance afforded to customers by a highly trained agency and advisor force—but with a purchasing and service experience enhanced through the latest technology. To better understand how New York Life is realizing that objective, IIR spoke with Alex Cook, Senior Vice President, Head of Strategic Capabilities, and a member of the New York Life’s Executive Management Committee. Cook’s preparation for his current strategic role is based on a variety of senior leadership roles he’s held during 11 years at the company. Having taken on his current role in March 2020, Cook was formerly Chief Data & Analytics Officer, and Head of Retail Life. Before that, up to March 2016, he was Chief Customer & Analytics Officer. During most of 2015 he was Senior Vice President of Strategy, Data & Analytics, following a roughly three-year tenure as Vice President and Head of Corporate strategy. His first role at the company was as Managing Director of Strategy for New York Life’s Investment group from late 2010 through early 2012.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: What does it mean to be Head of Strategic Capabilities at New York Life in 2021?

Alex Cook, SVP, New York Life: My department, which spans strategy & planning, technology, NYL Ventures, underwriting, data & analytics, is focused on modernizing and building new capabilities for the company in support of our core mission of providing financial protection and peace of mind to families across the country, with our human advice and guidance model centered on our career agency distribution. That’s because we firmly believe that, to drive the best outcomes — helping families to protect what matters most to them and enabling them to prosper — it’s critical that we have well-trained advisors and agents who can understand what their clients’ needs are and deliver the full range of solutions that New York Life can bring to fruition, including insurance and investment solutions.

Alex Cook, Head of Strategic Capabilities, New York Life.

To do that, we have focused on enabling our agents with the best training and digital tools so that they can very effectively guide their clients in their coverage needs. We’re also focused on the need to enhance the purchase experience to reduce any friction, as well as to deliver an online experience that meets all the needs in an ongoing relationship, with agents a part of that, but also self-service. Finally, we’re also focused on supporting a good experience for beneficiaries.

IIR: Could you expand on what it means to remove friction from the life insurance purchase experience?

AC: The first piece of friction I would mention is consumers not recognizing or acting on their need. There’s a huge amount of under-insurance, particularly in the middle market where we focus. We’re addressing that through a combination of agents/advisors reaching out, along with digital marketing as a way of educating consumers and connecting them with agents to help them focus on what they need to protect their families.

Once you get over that hurdle of getting individuals to recognize the need and connect them with agents/advisors, the next step of buying life or disability income or long-term care is still often a very difficult process. Five years ago, the process was predominantly paper based. It took a long time to go through that process and included very difficult-to-comprehend illustrations of future policy values—a regulatory requirement, but not easy for people to understand. It also involved getting through underwriting that required blood and other fluids as well as health records from medical providers that could take weeks. It was a very laborious and uncomfortable process. [Now the process is predominantly online and we supply our agents/advisors with the digital tools necessary to effectively and seamlessly serve their clients.]

IIR: What are some of the ways New York Life is working to lubricate the process, so to speak?

AC: In 2015, we started on a journey to address these friction points, the first major delivery in that year being our electronic application. We’ve made a great deal of progress automating and digitizing the application process end-to-end, as well as getting health data in digital form. In the past, and still for some of the business, we had to obtain a PDF of the health record, often via a fax or other source. We’ve now done a lot to digitize that information, getting a direct digital feed from the same Electronic Health Record [EHR] platforms that the healthcare providers use, such as Epic [Verona, Wisc.] and Cerner [Kansas City, Mo.].

We’re continuing to focus on digitizing many elements of the process and improving speed and quality of experience. That now includes the use of predictive models that allow us to bypass the need to collect blood and fluids from some applicants. We’re at a point now where more than half of our applications are underwritten without the need for blood and other fluid.

IIR: Could you be more precise about your percentage of fluid-less business?

AC: We saw a peak of 65 percent last year. This was in part because COVID was at its peak, and in response we further enabled a number of applicants that could come in using historical lab data because it was very hard for paramedics to go visit applicants. We’re now doing about 55 percent of applicants fluid-less. We expect that to continue, though we also expect to make more inroads over time.

IIR: What are some further improvements you’re making to the application and underwriting process through the use of technology?

AC: A key next step is the launch of a proprietary rules engine we’re building, and models that predict mortality. It’s a proprietary build and one of our great advantages is our scale and longevity –  we have many, many years with historical data and underwriting data to track how mortality unfolds. We’re in a good spot to do that development, and we have built up our Center for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence [CDSAi], which we founded in 2015.

IIR: How do New York Life’s collaborations with Epic and Cerner for electronic health record (EHR) retrieval come into play here?

AC: This is something we’re very proud of because New York Life has been a first-mover in this area. We started with a focus on this with Epic, which is the largest single player in the EHR arena. We were able to convince them there was a use case in the life insurance industry. Until then they had focused on servicing hospitals and provider networks and hadn’t thought about life insurance. We explained to them that there was a pain point for people seeking life insurance: while hospitals and providers have EHR platforms, when there was a request from an insurance company they would print out the dozens or hundreds of pages for each record and fax or mail them—which of course was both costly and time consuming.

IIR: When did you start working with Epic?

AC: We started conversations with Epic around 2015, and by 2018 we had firmly established the relationship. We formed an agreement with Epic that they would build a platform for life insurers or other relevant companies to enable the life insurer to get access to the individual’s health records for life insurance or LTC or other insurance needs—always with full consumer consent.

Our first focus with Cerner was with their patient portal offering. They facilitated our ability to access the patient portal information, again with consent from patient or applicant. That was the first implementation with Cerner in 2019 and we subsequently partnered with them to develop access to full EHR as well as the patient portal.

Veradigm [Chicago] is another key partner, along with state-based Healthcare Information Exchanges. All of these partnerships have come about as a result of New York Life’s pioneering of access for the life insurance industry to electronic health records in digital form, from an array of sources.

IIR: Which teams within New York Life have been supporting these efforts—digitization, and other related initiatives?

AC: One of my teams is the Strategic Solutions Group, which has played a major role in the digital health data area, as well as other parts of the digitizing of the purchase process and experience. Their role has been to identify the various sources to work with, go through the proofs of concept and testing, and partnering very closely with underwriting—because we need to assess the quality of the data—as well as with technology on the actual implementations and all the data flows into our systems. They are also now collaborating with our data scientists as we start to look at getting that information into our predictive models.

IIR: I would imagine that the data science group has been growing since the founding in 2015.

AC: Yes, the CDSAi continues to grow. It began with only a couple of folks back in 2015 and we now have grown into a team of 45, and we are continuing to grow and expand the team. We also have some smaller analytics teams in different parts of the business who work with CDSAi. In addition to the work we do with Underwriting, we have worked in actuarial areas on some pricing models and work in marketing looking at segmentation as well as next-best-offer models, and within the service area, predicting next-best action. We have also done a lot of work to look at improving how we select agents on the recruiting side.

IIR: More broadly, what advances are your teams working on for the near future?

AC: We’ll continue the journey of improving the purchase experience and find more ways to automate the underwriting process, making it faster and easier. That will be important. Another key area is digitizing the sales process; that is in many ways the biggest opportunity to enable our agents and advisors to provide advice and guidance, starting with engaging in digital fact-finding with their clients that can then be recorded and accessed. This will ensure that they can understand what clients’ needs are and use that understanding to provide solutions that are in turn much easier for clients to understand. We’re working on graphical illustrations and combine multiple solutions into a bundle that meets consumers needs more effectively within their budget and do in a way that is much faster and easier than the current way of running illustrations for every product, and then trying to aggregate that. We’ve launched the first version of our digital sales tool GuideMe. It’s showing great results and we’ll continue to build on that platform, enabling our agents to put the full array of product solutions together in a compelling manner, making it much easier for clients to understand what they’re being offered, understand what their needs are and how we are able to meet those needs effectively, protecting what matters most and enabling them to prosper.

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Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at or (503) 936-2803.

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