A Helping Hand

Q&A with Ashlee Mouton Borcan, FSA, MAAA, principal and consulting actuary at Milliman


Photograph: Riku Foto

Why did you become an actuary?

I became an actuary because it was something I thought I could be good at as well as something that seemed interesting. I was good at math in school, but I didn’t love it. Proofs were the bane of my existence because I didn’t enjoy proving things that other people had already figured out. I liked my finance classes, which were an interesting union of future expectations, human behavior and quantitative analysis, but they were always a bit too easy. Marrying the two together gave me the challenge I needed to be engaged and interested. I knew the exams were difficult, so I earned dual degrees in actuarial science and finance and thought that if the whole actuary thing didn’t work out I could fall back on the finance work. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case!

Why did you choose to stay in the niche field of supplemental health?

Supplemental health appealed to me because of how much it helps consumers. Unlike typical major medical coverage, which pays benefits to the hospital when you incur expenses, supplemental policies pay benefits directly to policyholders for certain medical events. This money isn’t required to be paid to the hospital. Insureds can use it for anything they need, so if they’re not working as a result of their illness, they may want to use the money to pay their mortgage, or even to buy groceries. That money may also allow a loved one to take time off work to care for the insured during the illness. So much of the current talk about health care focuses on medical expenses and misses all the other nonmedical costs associated with being very sick. As medical plan deductibles have increased over the years, supplemental health has become even more valuable to consumers, and our work has gotten much more important.

What is the most interesting and/or rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of my job is helping people focus on getting well, rather than being distracted by financial concerns. Sometimes we get lost in the details of our work, and when you’re working with the data, it can be easy to forget about the people behind it. I love when I hear stories from my clients who have gotten thank-you notes or agents who have gotten hugs because the benefits paid saved someone’s home or allowed that person’s mother to fly in to provide care. I know the products we develop really help people, and that’s what makes our work so important.

Several years ago, when my son was born, I had a strange experience in the hospital. On the day my son was born, a hospital staff member came and quietly waited in my room for a break between visitors. Once she had a clear moment to talk, she asked me how I would be paying for my visit. I had a $5,000 high-deductible plan and knew I’d have a bill to settle, but I was absolutely shocked to be asked directly for payment while I was still in the hospital and my son was less than 24 hours old. I was prepared to give her my credit card, but I couldn’t resist remarking to her that she must have one of the worst jobs! She said that the maternity ward was actually pretty easy because new parents generally knew the bill was coming and had time to prepare. She said the worst was the cardiac ward where patients were often admitted unexpectedly. I can’t even imagine sitting in a bed, recovering from a heart attack, and being asked “how do you plan to pay your bill today?” I get sick just thinking about it. Every supplemental policy that we develop helps people answer that question.

Are there places in the health care space where actuaries aren’t currently involved but you think they should be?

I’d love to see more actuaries in senior leadership roles. To make this happen, I think we need to work on broadening our image beyond our current stereotypes. I also wish that I could see more actuaries involved in public policy. A lot of the big events in the news these days are closely related to actuarial work: health care, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I hear the actuarial community’s thoughts on these items through my actuarial network, but I don’t see enough of that making its way to mainstream media.

How do you see the actuarial profession changing and evolving, and what should actuaries be doing today to prepare?

Actuaries love good data, and the more we can get the happier we are. This has always been a problem in the supplemental health field because good data is hard to come by unless you’ve been around a long time. I’m hoping that access to better and faster data is going to help us feel more comfortable with risk and reach a broader audience of insureds.

Unfortunately, there is a big learning curve associated with many of the new tools available to us, and actuaries are going to need to develop and broaden their skills in order to understand and properly use this new information. This is especially hard for the actuarial students who are already faced with years of exams, and the idea of adding more material can be very discouraging.

Every year actuarial work has more and more computer science elements and the pace of innovation and development is much faster than what we have typically experienced. A broad skill set has always been a necessity, and that’s never been more true than now. Actuaries have always been “on the job learners,” and we need to adopt the mindset that we’ll be learning new skills every year until we retire.

What is the biggest misconception your clients have about actuaries?

Where do I even start? There are so many jokes out there about how antisocial and nerdy we are. If I skip through all that, then maybe the biggest misconception is that each of us only does one thing. To be fair, actuaries have perpetuated this idea with conversations like this:

Bob: “Oh, you’re an actuary? I haven’t met many actuaries! Can I ask you a life insurance question?”

Extroverted actuary (while staring at Bob’s shoes): “No, I do medical insurance, don’t ask me anything about life insurance.”

We’re so quick to limit ourselves to our specialties that we forget our skills apply to broad ranges of applications and that we can do many things. Our education system requires a basic level of knowledge about a lot of different areas. Sure, I don’t do Social Security work, but I can still have an intelligent conversation about Social Security. I don’t work in the casualty field, but I still know the basics. We’re so quick to put ourselves in tiny buckets, even within the actuarial field, that most people believe our capabilities are very narrow. That makes it especially hard for actuaries who want to work in nontraditional spaces. If we’re ever going to expect the world to perceive us as experts in different fields, we need to stop limiting ourselves.

What advice would you give someone considering a career as an actuary?

It’s amazing and difficult, and sometimes amazingly difficult! You need to find what you are passionate about and really embrace it as you work through the examination process. To be honest, I didn’t really like being an actuarial student. The exams were difficult and time-consuming and, while I appreciated doing the day-to-day work, I wanted to be doing more big-picture strategizing. I loved the idea of talking through problems and challenges with clients, but I understood that it would take a very strong foundation of knowledge in order to provide strategic value. I worked hard, I pushed through the exams, I learned everything I could in the office and that has enabled me to become the successful consultant I am today. Some days in a student’s early career will be really hard. They’ll have exam days. They’ll have days where they just don’t understand what their mentors are trying to tell them. They’ll have days where they can’t see the answer and feel really lost. Everyone has these days, but if you keep pushing through them, before you know it you’ll be the leader and the mentor. You’ll be the one helping your stakeholders and teaching the next generation, and there’s nothing more rewarding than that.

Why do you think volunteering in the profession is important?

This relates to a pet peeve of mine: Don’t just complain, do something about it. As you may know, there are not many supplemental health actuaries out there. About seven or eight years ago, I got very frustrated when I would attend professional meetings and there really wasn’t any relevant continuing education for me. Additionally, because there was no concentration of supplemental health session content, my peers were dispersed across various meetings and networking was very difficult. Rather than just complain about it, I decided to volunteer and try to change things. It has taken years, but now we have a full health track at the Society of Actuaries (SOA) Valuation Actuary Symposium, a dedicated supplemental health track at the SOA Health Meeting, and a dedicated Supplemental Health, Disability Insurance (DI) and Long-term Care (LTC) conference jointly sponsored by the SOA, LIMRA and LOMA. These opportunities to learn and network has been invaluable to the industry, and I genuinely believe it’s allowed actuaries working in supplemental health to help more people. If I hadn’t volunteered, we probably would have gotten there, but I think it may have taken a lot longer. Volunteering is a way to help the industry and, if you want change, there are opportunities out there for you to make it happen.

What about your job inspires you?

Without a doubt, it’s the people—the people with whom I work, the clients I serve and the people we help. I have some of the best coworkers out there, and I can’t imagine working without them. When I have difficult days, I think about the people I’m helping and it makes it all worth it.

Ashlee Mouton Borcan, FSA, MAAA, is principal and consulting actuary at Milliman.

Copyright © 2018 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.