When Elizabeth J. Rappaport showed up at Howard County's annual Older Americans' Day Luncheon recently, she got more than lemon chicken and cheesecake for her $3 ticket.
She was introduced to Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. agents, who played a central role in the luncheon: MetLife agents ran a prize drawing, handing out Snoopy dolls and gift certificates; a regional MetLife official gave a speech, mentioning MetLife products and introducing the cadre of agents in attendance; and the company invited the 700 seniors there to seminars on long-term care insurance.
MetLife paid $6,000 to the county Office on Aging to underwrite the luncheon, part of a new strategy of buying access to potential customers in a fast-growing market -- financial services for the elderly.
The insurer is working with several of Maryland's regional offices on aging, forging partnerships that regional officials say help them better serve the public.
But some critics say that by allying themselves so closely with MetLife, officials may appear to be recommending the company.
"It's not the government's job to appear to be endorsing any company or any product," says Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat, who attended the Howard seniors luncheon and serves on the House of Delegates panel that handles insurance issues. "When the office of aging has the county government's name next to the name of an insurance company, there may well be some in the elderly community who perceive that to be an endorsement, and that's worrisome."
"There is a definite tie-in, an endorsement or an implied &r endorsement," says Rappaport, 70, a Columbia resident. "It's like you're buying good favor or something."
MetLife's sponsorship of the luncheon, Howard's largest annual event for the elderly, bought the company more than just a spot on the program. Like the insurer's $30,000 contribution to Baltimore County last year, MetLife's money is buying a special kind of entree into county senior centers where insurance companies are generally barred from selling their wares.
MetLife gets inside not to make a sales pitch, but to give a seminar on how to use a financial planning tool called "The File," which was devised last year by Baltimore County Department of Aging official Arnold Eppel.
The File is a bright yellow folder for recording vital financial
information, so loved ones will have just one place to look in case of the person's death or loss of capacity. On the front of The File are the MetLife logo and the logo of the county -- side by side. The MetLife telephone number is bigger and bolder than the number of the county office on aging.
MetLife pays to print The File for offices on aging in several counties, and sponsors events to hand them out. With the help of local officials, MetLife then gives seminars at senior centers on filling out The File.
Then it's time to do business: MetLife officials often invite the seniors to other insurance and investment seminars -- sometimes in the same senior centers -- where agents pitch the need to buy policies and financial services.
Regional officials view the MetLife sponsorship as a model for better serving the elderly while saving tax dollars. Eppel sought sponsorship for The File because his office did not have the money to print the 250,000 copies he wanted; MetLife's offer of $30,000 easily beat another insurer's.
Howard Office on Aging Director Phyllis Madachy says she approached MetLife when she realized that her annual luncheon for the elderly would prove too costly for the county to afford this year.
"We're very aware of course that businesses want to increase their visibility in the senior market, and where we can find ways of doing that while preserving the objectivity of the office, we look for such partnerships," she says.
A public service?
Regional officials say MetLife is doing a public service, not looking for ways to increase business. They point out that The Sun has been supportive as well, delivering The File last month to more than 140,000 Baltimore County subscribers for no charge.
"I honestly think MetLife is looking for a way to give back to the community," says Eppel.
MetLife officials, though, acknowledge that they also view The File as a great sales strategy.
Sales of long-term care insurance and retirement planning services have increased, in some cases substantially, for agents participating in the partnership since it began in Baltimore County last fall, says Lisa Deger, general manager at MetLife's White Marsh sales branch.
"We've done more and more seminars than we've ever done here before, and The File has been the tool that has enabled us to do that," says Bruce Grunwald, regional market development specialist for MetLife. "Obviously the opportunities for doing business are enhanced by doing those, so it's a win-win situation."