One would have expected the CEO of one of the longest established life insurance companies in Cyprus and the leader in private health insurance on the island to have no good words to say about GESY.
“On the contrary,” explains Universal Life CEO Evan Gavas, “we welcome GESY, and are working to differentiate our offering to cater to our clients’ evolving needs whilst also providing them access to services not covered by GESY. What is needed however is public-private partnership, ways for the two to work together.”
“Every country in Europe should have a national health system to cover the healthcare needs of the population,” Gavas continues. “GESY has just started out, and some of the issues it’s been facing – abuse, by some doctors and patients alike, queues for certain types of treatment, for example – should have been anticipated, and the proper controls should have been in place. Hopefully some of these early issues will be smoothed out over time.”
But Gavas insists that for sustainability in the long term the state should consider partnering with the private sector to keep up with medical inflation. Europe is expected to see an annual medical trend rate of 5.7 per cent in 2020, according to the Aon Global Medical Trend Rates report.
“The state needs the private insurance sector to keep up with medical inflation, which is driven by the significant funding required for drug discoveries, new development, new technologies etc.,” Gavas adds. “The private sector also has much to bring to the table in terms of flexibility, innovation and additional capacity to complement an over-stretched public system.”
“We are evolving our technology and product range to better complement GESY. We’re also expanding our global coverage. For example, we’ve made new health agreements with the two largest hospital groups in Greece, and are covering travel costs there. The larger market in Greece enables us to ensure access to specialists who are not always available in Cyprus. At the same time a number of top specialists in Cyprus have opted not joined GESY, and our customers deserve to have access to the best medical care both in Cyprus and abroad.”
Gavas also notes that there is not sufficient implementation of preventative care in the state insurance plan, and that this is becoming a major area supported by private health insurance.
Universal Life had forecasted an initial fall in business as customers would need to pay both private and GESY contributions. “This hasn’t really materialised, however,” Gavas points out. “People retain their private health insurance as they still do not have full confidence in the public system and they want to maintain their existing medical history and comprehensive benefits. Nonetheless, our objective is to further improve our service offering to our customers, and to provide the quality that is justified by the extra payment.”
It’s an exciting time for the 46-year old Gavas, a Cypriot, graduate of the English School Nicosia, later of the Harvard Business School, and who joined Universal Life just over two years ago.
“Insurance was a new sector for me. I’d mostly worked in corporate or private banking, as an executive or consultant abroad. But there are many similarities to banking. Both banking and insurance are highly regulated industries and they are trust-based industries; the customer will not work with you if they don’t trust you with their money, he says”
“I’d returned to Cyprus at the end of 2015, after my wife had just had our first child. I started a consulting firm, but I was not completely satisfied with consulting. You don’t get to see the results of your work. Here, at Universal Life, I can develop the strategy, see it implemented, and then watch the results, he adds.
Digital transformation at Universal life is fundamental to his strategy. “Insurance is a business that depends on technology. Customers want to access their information online, make transactions online, and much more.”
Cyprus is a bit behind in this respect to the entire sector, so it’s a huge opportunity, Gavas says. “First we are starting with the basics, automating manual processes to speed up service to our customers.”
Almost the first thing Gavas did when he came to the company was to launch its first client portal. We saw massive adoption of the portal when it was launched in January 2020. So when COVID-19 hit in March, nearly 50 per cent of medical claims were submitted online. We also introduced online payments so our clients could avoid physical contact.”
The company has already launched an app using AI to check medical symptoms and recommend potential further action if necessary. Gavas says that the next step in digital transformation will involve data analytics and AI to improve service.
Gavas is also building on human capital at the company. “We have been fortunate to attract local talent into new roles, to complement our highly experienced workforce. Sometimes you have to look abroad for specialised skills. For example our new head of strategy, is a Cypriot who was a consultant in London, but who wanted to come home.”
And Gavas is planning to lead expansion into pensions, along with enhancing the company’s life insurance business – it was the first local life insurer on the island.
In 2019, Universal Life had its best year in almost a decade, earning €5 million in pre-tax profit. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, he expected a substantial financial impact. “But the excellent management of the disease here in Cyprus has prevented that from happening,” Gavas comments. “The mortality rate here has been low, and even the number of cases relatively limited compared with other countries. This has made a great difference.”